Monday, September 27, 2004

Exiting Parishes Sued for Their Property

The saga of the three parishes in the diocese of Los Angeles that decided to leave the Episcopal Church and join a Ugandan diocese continues. Not surprisingly, the diocese has decided to sue in order to lay claim to the properties.

The likely decision will be, based on past cases, that these three parishes will lose their property. From Louie Crew;

The Diocese of New Jersey vs. St. Stephen's
The Diocese of Newark vs. St. Mark's
The Diocese of Los Angeles vs. Holy Apostles, St. Matthias, St. Mary's, and Our Saviour

To understand why the secular courts will most likely side with the diocese, here's just a bit of the verbiage from the first example;

In this country, courts have been repeatedly admonished not to attempt to decide ecclesiastical doctrinal controversies. It has been often stated that "[t]he law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect." Watson vs. Jones, 13 Wall. 679, 728, 20 L.Ed. 666, 676 (1872). However, subject to certain limitations, a civil court can be called upon to resolve a church property dispute.

The United States Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment does not dictate that a state must follow a particular method of resolving church property disputes and any one of various approaches may be adopted so long as it does not involve consideration of doctrinal matters. Jones vs. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595, 99 S.Ct. 3020, 61 L.Ed.2d 775 (1979). One acceptable method of approach was outlined in Watson vs. Jones, supra, which repudiated the English rule that church property was the subject of an implied trust in favor of those who truly adhered to church doctrine. The Supreme Court held that our basic constitutional requirement of the separation of Church and State prevented courts from using the departure from doctrine approach in the adjudication of church property disputes. In the absence of specific trust provisions in the deed, will or other instrument by which the property is held, Watson made inquiry as to where the particular church body had placed ultimate authority over the use of church property.

Two broad types of church government were recognized. In a congregational church, church authority and control over church property rested completely in the local congregation and its elected elders. In a hierarchical church, however, the local church is an integral and subordinate part of the general church and subject to its authority. Watson, therefore, held that in a hierarchical situation where there was a property dispute between a subordinate local parish and the general church, civil courts must accept the authoritative ruling of the higher authority within the hierarchy.

The Watson rule, although admittedly not exclusive, has been modified to the extent that a civil court may inquire into fraud, collusion or arbitrariness in the ecclesiastical disposition. Gonzales vs. Archbishop, 280 U.S. 1, 50 S.Ct. 5, 74 L.Ed. 131 (1929).
The Episcopal Church is considered a "hierarchical church." In addition to this, since 1979, the canons of TEC have included the following;

All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish,Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.
-Canons of the General Convention
, Title 1, Canon 7, Section 4.
If the majority of the members of these parishes want to leave, I find it unfortunate that they are being taken into court. The problem, of course, is who defines if it is indeed a majority that voted to take the parish out of TEC?

Timothy Titus raises this question in the L.A.Times, using St. James, one of the parishes headed for the courtroom, as an example;

...The rector of the church, Fr. Praveen Bunyan, reportedly has said his congregation's vote to leave the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles was "280 to 12" in favor, "with possibly one abstention." Bunyan claims in a letter to members that this reflects an overwhelming 96% majority.

The "St. James Fact Sheet," available on the church's website, claims the congregation to number "approximately 1,200 members." In its press release announcing its defection, the church claims a membership of "more than 1,200 members." According to math, and counting both types of votes and the abstention, 293 members voted on the breakaway. This means that, in reality, only 25% of the congregation was even present at the vote and 23% of the membership voted "yes." Bunyan's claims of 96%, at the very least, creatively skirt the truth...
It is the duty of Bishop Bruno of Los Angeles to be a good steward of the resources entrusted to his care, and to provide pastoral care to all faithful Episcopalians within his diocese. If there are a significant number of St. James parishioners who do not desire to leave TEC, it would seem appropriate for the bishop to do whatever is necessary to hold on to this property.

But I don't think it is the graceful way to proceed. I wish I had a better solution. What does seem evident to me is that in those cases in which it is clear that a significant number (someone would have to define what is deemed significant; 75%? 85%?) of the members desire to leave TEC, they should be allowed to go with God, with their property and endowments. This would seem to be the way of grace. The diocese would then need to provide a high level of pastoral care to the minority who remained faithful to TEC, as they will have lost their parish home.

On a personal level, I am quite disappointed that this situation has ended up in the courts. That means we're going to have to hear about it for years. We've expended much too much energy on this stuff already. Debating if we should encourage people to be in faithful, committed relationships or not? One would think that would be a no-brainer.

We have other things to do. Let them go with God, so we can press on the Kingdom.


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