Episcopal parties file petition for review by U.S. Supreme Court

June 19, 2014

[Episcopal Diocese of Forth Worth press release] On June 19, 2014, The Episcopal Church and loyal Episcopal parties and congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. A copy of the petition is here.

The Fort Worth parties were joined in the filing by the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas and the officials from the continuing Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo. Both dioceses have suffered from breakaway factions that swore to uphold The Episcopal Church before breaking ties and claiming to take historic Episcopal names, churches, and property with them. Episcopal parties in both dioceses won summary judgments from the trial courts under 100 years of Texas law, before the Texas Supreme Court changed the rules of the game and undid decades-old intrachurch arrangements. Both Episcopal parties have now been locked out of their historic houses of worship for half a decade.

The Episcopal Parties have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review these August 30, 2013, decisions of the Texas Supreme Court. A statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas on the Good Shepherd opinion is here, and a statement of from the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth on the Texas Supreme Court opinion is here. In those decisions, the Texas Supreme Court retroactively changed more than 100 years of Texas precedent to substitute a “neutral principles” test for the “deference” test in church property disputes; the court also held that the Church’s Dennis Canon, a trust canon enacted at the U.S. Supreme Court’s instruction in 1979, was “not good enough under Texas law.”

The petition asks the U.S. Supreme Court to address three federal constitutional questions:

1. Whether the First Amendment or Jones v. Wolf requires courts to enforce express trusts recited in general-church governing documents (as some jurisdictions hold), or whether such a trust is enforceable only when it would otherwise comply with state law (as others hold).

2. Whether retroactive application of the neutral-principles approach infringes free-exercise rights.

3. Whether the neutral-principles approach endorsed in Jones remains a constitutionally viable means of resolving church-property disputes, especially in light of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide whether to review these questions when it resumes its new term on October 6, 2014. If review is granted, the parties will file briefs and give oral argument, with a decision possible by the end of the term in June 2015.

The Episcopal parties’ legal counsel are joined by U.S. Supreme Court practitioners Neal Katyal with Hogan Lovells US, LLP and John P. Elwood with Vinson & Elkins, LLP.

The Rt. Rev. Rayford B. High, Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, said, “This request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court is but one of many pieces necessary to our work to resolve this dispute that has disrupted the Episcopal community in this diocese. We remain confident that eventually we will recover the exclusive rights to use our historic names and properties for the mission and ministry of The Episcopal Church. As we continue to pray for the breakaway members who left our worship communities, we also continue to delight in the many new ways that God is using us and The Episcopal Church to bring spiritual renewal to this area of Texas.”

In related news, the remand of the case to the 141st District Court in Tarrant County continues even as the parties seek Supreme Court review. The Honorable Judge John P. Chupp entered a scheduling order that includes pleading and discovery deadlines and sets the hearing on motions for summary judgment for December 17, 2014. A copy of the docket control order is here. At the Court’s urging, the breakaway groups committed on the record and in sworn discovery responses that they would not sell or encumber any disputed church property until the resolution of this case without first notifying the Episcopal parties and seeking approval from the Court.