LOS ANGELES: U.S. Supreme Court won't hear La Crescenta petition on property case

St. Luke's of-the-Mountains Episcopal Church, La Crescenta, California.
March 1, 2010

The U.S. Supreme Court announced March 1 that it would not hear a petition from a breakaway group seeking to regain the property of St. Luke's of-the-Mountains Episcopal Church in La Crescenta, California, in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

In a statement on March 1, Bishop of Los Angeles J. Jon Bruno thanked the justices for the decision, which was posted on the court's website. The high court had met in conference Feb. 26 and declined to hear the petition filed by St. Luke's Anglican Church, whose members voted in 2006 to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles.

"We're pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to accept the case, which now finalizes the judgment secured by the diocese," said John Shiner, diocesan chancellor.

St. Luke's Anglican church released a statement late Monday saying they had "hoped that the United States Supreme Court would hear its case not just for the sake of its own members, but also for the sake of other congregations across the country, regardless of denomination or faith, who own their own property."

The statement continued, "The congregation of St. Luke's - now re-incorporated under the name "St. Luke's Anglican" and continuing vibrant and faithful worship in rented facilities – is grateful that its long legal battle is now over and offers its thanks to all who have prayed for its continued success. St. Luke's remains supportive of sister congregations here in California and in other parts of the country who are facing similar trials and prays that God's will be done."

Members of the breakaway group, citing theological differences over the ordination of women and gays, had disaffiliated from the diocese but continued to occupy the landmark stone church complex. But on October 4, 2009 a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ordered the property returned to the diocese.

That order followed a June 9 California appellate court ruling that the Los Angeles diocese is the legal owner of the property, and that the property is held in trust by the local parish for the mission and ministry of the diocese and the wider Episcopal church.

The appellate court ruling cited a Jan. 5, 2009 state Supreme Court decision in a separate property dispute case involving St. James' Anglican Church in Newport Beach. The California Supreme Court ordered that property returned to the diocese; the U.S. Supreme Court let stand the lower court ruling, declining to hear an appeal by the breakaway group.

The Newport Beach church has yet to be returned to the diocese, however.

But Bruno said he remained hopeful "that it will be possible for Christian reconciliation and healing to occur in these contexts, and I look forward to an end to the costly litigation that has spanned more than five and a half years. I ask for the diocesan community's continuing prayers with regard to these matters."

The Rev. Bryan Jones, vicar of St. Luke's of-the-Mountains Episcopal Church, said he believes the continuing congregation is "the fastest growing" in the six-county Los Angeles diocese, because attendance has quadrupled since the property was returned last year.

The congregation will begin meeting at 10 a.m., starting Easter, April 4. "Things are going fine," he said. "We've been having an 8 a.m. simple service with no promotion or advertising. We started in November with nine. Last Sunday we had 36 and the group has decided to shift to 10 a.m. and add music and everything."

Jones said he was "so very pleased that it's finally completely resolved, although we didn't think there'd be much chance it'd go another way. This is the final relief. We're starting a congregation here."

But Dr. John C. Eastman, an expert in constitutional law and an advisor to the St. Luke's Anglican group, said March 1 that "it's always a long shot to get them to grant an appeal," referring to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The group isn't giving up, either, added Eastman, the Donald P. Kennedy Chair in Law and director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Chapman University Law School in Orange, California.

"We're still in the running," Eastman said during a telephone interview. He believes the nation's top court may hear an appeal in yet another property dispute case, in the Diocese of South Carolina.

Depending on the outcome the case could have implications for St. Luke's and other California church property disputes, he said. It involves the appeal of a Sept. 18, 2009 South Carolina Supreme Court ruling against members of All Saints' Church, Waccamaw, who remained loyal to the Episcopal Church.

In that case, the court's opinion said that the parish corporation is the owner of the property, not the diocese. The opinion also said a 1903 quit-claim deed from the diocese gave title to the property to the parish.

According to the opinion, neither the "Dennis Canon" (Canon 1.7.4) (passed by the General Convention in 1979 to state that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church) nor the 2000 notice filed by the diocese "has any legal effect on title to the All Saints' congregation's property."