Photo from Affectionate Men: A Photographic History of a Century of Male Couples, 1850-1950 By Russell Bush, Copyright 1998.
When members of Saint James Anglican Church in Newport Beach, Calif., fervently and vociferously disagreed with a 2003 decision by the national Episcopal church to consecrate a gay man as bishop of New Hampshire, they split off from the Episcopal Church of the United States (ECUSA).
But this might be one of those “be careful what you wish for” parables. The California Supreme Court has ruled that because the local church had agreed to a 1979 canon that states the parishes hold property in trust for the ECUS, the St James crowd has lost the right to occupy the parish property and buildings.
The ruling was unanimous, and legal experts predict similar rulings could apply to other denominations as well. The ruling comes on the heels of the decision late last year by 700 conservative Episcopal congregations to form a separate church in North America.The Los Angeles Times report on the separation is here.
Although the break-away church argued that it had title to the property and had purchased additional parcels over the years, with member donations, Justice Ming W. Chin wrote: “When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it…The local church agreed and intended to be part of a larger entity and to be bound by the rules and governing documents of that greater entity.”
The exact wording of the ruling began with this:
Applying the neutral principles of law approach, we conclude 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. 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.
(Here’s the full opinion.)
Dan Slater of the Wall Street Journal Law Blog said: “Notably, Justice Joyce L. Kennard wrote separately to say that no secular institution would be permitted to take someone’s property that way. “This result is constitutional, but only because the dispute involves religious bodies and then only because [the legal doctrine at issue], permissible under the 1st Amendment, allows a state to give unbridled deference to the superior religious body or general church.”
Kinnard’s main objection was over which legal doctrine was at issue in this case. Although she agreed with the outcome of the ruling, Kennard wrote that she disagreed that the ruling was based on the “neutral principles of law” approach. She said: “One is the “principle of government” approach: When the dispute involves a hierarchical church, as here the Episcopal Church, civil courts must accept decisions made at the highest level of the church hierarchy. (Watson v. Jones (1871) 80 U.S. 679, 727.) The other is the “neutral principles of law” approach. That concept, as used in the context of a civil court’s resolution of church property disputes, simply permits application of “objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law familiar to lawyers and judges.” (Jones v. Wolf (1979) 443 U.S. 595, 603.) These are “principles or rules of law” developed for use in all property disputes whether or not the litigants are religious associations or corporations.”