In a landmark ruling that could have national implications, the California Supreme Court on January 5 upheld an earlier court decision that buildings and property do not belong to dissident congregations but to the Diocese of Los Angeles and the general Episcopal Church.
Associate Justice Ming W. Chin, writing for the court, said the diocese held the property and buildings in trust for the wider mission and ministry of the church.
The ruling affects St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David's Church in North Hollywood.
A majority of members at the three churches had disagreed with the Episcopal Church's decision in 2003 to approve the election of an openly gay bishop. Members of all three realigned themselves with the Anglican Province of Uganda, attempted to amend articles of incorporation and retain the property.
Chin acknowledged that while the court cannot decide church doctrinal matters, it could decide property disputes, using a "neutral principles of law" approach. In rendering its decision, the court examined property deeds, local church articles of incorporation, the general church's constitution, canons and rules, and relevant statutes and concluded "that the general church, not the local church, owns the property in question.
"Although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be bound by its governing documents," Chin wrote.
"These governing documents make clear that church property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled by the local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the general church. When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it."
Bishop Jon Bruno of Los Angeles said in a statement that he is "overjoyed" and called it a decisive ruling. "We have prevailed in all areas of the law addressed in this case." He added that he will issue a pastoral letter to the congregations and "invite reconciliation and people coming back" but declined to speculate further
He added that he also wanted to assure "this diocese and the people of the Episcopal Church that we will continue mission and ministry in the areas these congregations serve."
Bruno added that the court decision "establishes a precedent. We further note the pastoral concerns at this time within the Episcopal Church, which continues in its mission of service, especially in providing food, shelter, medicine, and pastoral care to those in greatest need locally and globally, respecting the dignity of every human being."
John R. Shiner, chancellor for the diocese, said the ruling "will apply to all parishes throughout the state of California" and influence church property disputes nationally. "The decision, which upheld a 2007 appellate court ruling, is "final, conclusive, definitive," he added.
In response to a question at a news briefing, Shiner said he doubted the ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. "Of course, anything's possible, but today's ruling is so definitive," he said.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori's office issued a statement calling the decision "a ringing endorsement of this country's history of religious freedom, explicitly recognizing that judicial respect for a denomination's internal polity and rules is required by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, and is fully consistent with the application of the 'neutral principles' analysis."
The decision's "unequivocal reasoning applies generally throughout The Episcopal Church" and added she is hopeful it will bring remaining property disputes in California and elsewhere to a speedy conclusion.
The statement added: "We look forward to working with affected dioceses toward reconciliation and on a continuation of the Episcopal Church's mission priorities."
"We also are grateful for the ongoing faithful work of Bishop Jon Bruno and the Diocese of Los Angeles throughout this long and difficult process," the Presiding Bishop said. "Their continued dedication to the mission and ministry of the diocese in the midst of the litigation is commendable."
The Rev. Charles Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop, said the ruling serves as a reminder that "we are stewards of the precious heritage that we maintain for future generations of the Episcopal Church."
But attorney Eric Sohlgren, who represented the congregations, said the case "is far from over."
"What's good about the decision from the perspective of St. James is that the court has adopted a rule of neutral principles of law in that church property disputes will be resolved by neutral, nonreligious factors," said Sohlgren in a telephone interview.
He said the case will be sent back to the original trial court, which ruled in favor of the Newport Beach congregation "because the Episcopal Church has never obtained a judgment in the court in its favor." An appellate court vacated an Orange County Superior Court ruling in favor of the congregation.
"The other decision being contemplated and it's too early to decide â¦ is whether to take an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court." Sohlgren said the appeal would be based on a constitutional issue, of a court "enforcing a church rule that purports to create a trust interest in local property when other people in our society who are not churches cannot do so."
But Shiner, chancellor for the diocese, reiterated the opinion, noting that when the court applied the neutral principles of law approach it concluded that when the congregation "disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it."
The ruling goes into effect within 30 days; the congregations have 15 days in which to petition the court to reconsider. Six of the court's seven members joined in the opinion. Associate Justice Joyce Kennard issued a separate opinion in which she concurred with the overall court's ruling but disagreed with some of the court's reasoning.
A dispute involving another congregation, St. Luke's of-the-Mountains Church in La Crescenta, is also pending before the California Supreme Court.