The California Supreme Court today ruled in Episcopal Church Cases that church property disputes must be resolved by “neutral principles of law,” not by civil courts merely deferring to the decrees of church “hierarchies.” This ruling has wide and favorable impact for churches throughout California that seek to change their denominational affiliation.
While adopting this “non-religious” method of resolving property disputes between churches, the Court seemed to defer to the Episcopal Church’s alleged “trust canon,” which purports to create a trust interest in church property owned by local congregations. The Court made its ruling despite the fact that St. James Anglican Church, Newport Beach, purchased and maintained its property with its own funds and has held clear record title to its property for over fifty years.
In recent years, religious denominations as diverse as the Eastern Orthodox, Baptist and Pentecostal “Assemblies of God” have attempted to confiscate the property of congregations that wish to change their spiritual affiliation. Today’s ruling falls far short of the endorsement of such tactics that the Episcopal Church – and other denominational hierarchies that submitted briefs in support of it – had sought. Many local churches in California will be able to exercise their religious freedom to change their affiliation without having to forfeit their property as a result.
Nor is the saga over for St. James Anglican Church. “While we are surprised that the Court seemed to give some credence to the Episcopal Church’s purported rule confiscating local church property, the battle is far from over,” lead attorney Eric C. Sohlgren said. “The matter will now return to the Orange County Superior Court for further proceedings, and we look forward to presenting evidence and additional legal arguments that St. James Church should prevail under neutral principles of law.”
The leadership of the Newport Beach congregation is also evaluating a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and is meeting to discuss other possible steps. Today’s ruling also affects All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David’s Church in North Hollywood, whose cases were put on hold pending the outcome of the St. James case. Together with St. James Church, these congregations never agreed to relinquish their property to the Episcopal Church upon changing their affiliation, and have consistently maintained that they have the right to use and possess the property which they have owned and maintained for decades.
How Sohlgren can read into the decision that other churches may leave their denomination and take the property with them is beyond understanding. Clearly he needs a remedial course in the English language. The court said, "people may leave but they cannot take the property with them." The only way to misunderstand that statement is to deliberately do so.
The confiscators will now argue the validity of the so-called Dennis canon. But they will lose there, too. Another court said to another group using this argument: "You had twenty five years to object and you didn't. Therefore, you submitted to that canon." Additionally, the California court deferred to the National Church for how it legislates internal matters such as canons and constitution. They will not interfere unless those documents violate the California law. The court said, today, they do not violate the laws of California.
They will also argue that all seven justices didn't know the law when they made their decision. It's interesting that al seven justices were appointed by "conservative" governors. I expect them to also argue that the appointment of each justice was invalid for some reason, therefore, the decision is null and void. And who knows, we may just have an initiative on the next ballot to overturn this decision, too. Heaven knows the big "A" has enough money to fund such an endeavor.
I will be surprised if any judge is willing to hear arguments about this case. Judges take a dim view of their opinions being overturned. With the Supreme Court's ruling, the entire California legal establishment knows how the Court will rule regarding confiscation of TEC's property.
Additionally, there is one little phrase in the Court's decision that will cause the confiscators a lot of grief. The Court ruled "on the merits of the case." That means there is nothing else to be decided in this matter. The justices considered every aspect fo the issue and ruled on the matter in totality.
It's over; the fat lady sang and she cracked on that final "high C." But like those on the Titanic, the confiscators are grasping for anything that floats in an attempt to regain some credibility.
It is a major blow to one's credibility and ego to have the court call one a thief and to order the return of "confiscated" property.