California Court Rules on Church Property Cases

In its first case of the New Year, the California Supreme Court issued its Episcopal Church Cases opinion to resolve property rights claims by a congregation that breaks with its parent church and whether the schism results in the loss of church buildings and property. The facts of the case involve the Episcopal Church, but the impact of the opinion will apply to other denominations. What prompted the litigation was the secession of the St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach from the national church after the national church consecrated a gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The California Supreme Court in its opinion was careful to avoid deciding questions of religious doctrine and instead relied on the “neutral principles of law” standards articulated by the US Supreme Court in its 1979 decision in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595.

The California Court ruled that the building and property of the local congregation belong to the Episcopal Church, not the parish, once the parish broke away and affiliated with the more conservative Anglican Church of Uganda. Using principles of general property law, the Court held that the Canons of the Episcopal Church provide that property held by a local parish is held in trust for the general church and for the diocese in which the local church is located. In its ruling, the Court said:

For these reasons, we agree with the Court of Appeal’s conclusion (although not with all of its reasoning) that when defendants disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church, the local church property reverted to the general church. As stated in one of the out-of-state cases involving the same Episcopal Church, “[t]he individual defendants are free to disassociate themselves from [the parish and the Episcopal Church] and to affiliate themselves with another religious denomination. No court can interfere with or control such an exercise of conscience. The problem lies in defendants’ efforts to take the church property with them. This they may not do.”

The outcome in a similar dispute involving the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia was much different. There a Fairfax County trial judge issued a letter opinion in litigation involving eleven break away Episcopal (now Anglican) congregations seeking to retain control of their church buildings and property. See In Re: Multi-Circuit Episcopal Church Property Litigation from Dec. 19, 2008. This opinion reaffirms prior holdings that the properties belong to the congregations, not to the Episcopal Church USA and the Diocese. Expect further litigation on this issue.

The current controversy over the role of gays in church and religion mirrors conflicts that churches in the past have managed to overcome. See the Los Angeles Times article Putting the Episcopal Rift in a Historical Context citing controversies such as those over slavery, the ordination of women and even the role of children in church life which have threatened the Church in the past.

For related reading, see SARA, the BLS Library catalog, for Church-State Relations in Crisis: Debating Neutrality edited by Stephen V. Monsma (Call # KF228.M568 C48 2002) a book of essays designed specifically for students of the law and religion and politics and a source for debate on the future of government and religion.