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The Episcopal Church claimed a major legal victory Monday (Jan. 5) when California’s Supreme Court ruled that breakaway parishes do not have the right to keep church property if they secede from the national denomination.
And while the decision technically applies to only one church in one state — St. James Church in Newport Beach, Calif. — Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the high court’s “unequivocal reasoning applies generally through the Episcopal Church.”
“We are hopeful that this decision will help bring remaining property litigation in California and elsewhere to a speedy conclusion,”
she said.
Episcopal leaders also hope that Monday’s ruling will chill enthusiasm for a new, rival church in North America for dissident conservatives that was launched in early December.
Dozens of conservative parishes — and four dioceses, including one in California — have left the Episcopal Church since the ordination of an openly gay man as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
The denomination holds that local parish property is held in trust for regional dioceses and the national church. On Monday, California’s Supreme Court agreed.
“When it disaffiliated from the general church,” St. James “did not have the right to take the church property with it,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin for the seven-member court.
The court’s ruling should have an immediate impact on the denomination’s legal battle with the Fresno-based Diocese of San Joaquin, which seceded from the Episcopal Church in 2007 and aims to keep more than 30 church properties in its possession.
Chin wrote that “we granted review primarily to decide how the secular courts of this state should resolve disputes over church property.”
A statement from St. James signaled that “the battle is far from over” and lawyers are considering a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Two other breakaway parishes, All Saints in Long Beach and St.
David’s in North Hollywood, had put their property claims on hold and are also affected by the decision at St. James.
The ruling may ripple across church and state lines as well, according to legal scholars, bolstering denominations locked in similar battles, such as the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (USA), both of which filed briefs supporting the Episcopal Church, and warning conservatives to take heed before seceding.
“If I were in litigation in another state I would certainly point to this and say, ‘Hey, this is what another state’s Supreme Court said,”‘
said Robert W. Tuttle, a church-state expert at the George Washington University Law School.
Tuttle and others cautioned, however, that these kinds of property decisions tend to turn on facts specific to the case at hand.
The Rev. Peter Frank, spokesman for the Anglican Church in North America, the conservative rival province that was launched in December, said he doesn’t expect Monday’s rulings to staunch the conservative exodus.
“People that have made the choice to be mainstream Anglicans are unlikely to be sued back into a group they disagree with just because a panel of judges tells them they don’t actually own the candlesticks on the altar,” Frank said.
By Daniel Burke
Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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