A press release received via email:
SANTA ANA, Calif. ”“ June 26, 2007 ”“ A three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, today reversed the Orange County Superior Court’s prior ruling that three former Episcopal churches which disaffiliated from the national denomination in 2004 did not forfeit their property. This division of the appellate court broke with nearly thirty years of California church property law, and instead ruled that hierarchical church denominations can take over local church property by simply passing an internal rule ”“ even if the local church is separately incorporated, bought and maintained the property.
In August 2004, St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints’ Church in Long Beach, and St. David’s Church in North Hollywood, disassociated from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and the national Episcopal Church (TEC) because of theological differences, which drew international attention because of similar issues facing the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The appellate court’s ruling returns the lawsuits brought by the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and TEC against the three local churches to The Honorable David Velasquez of Orange County Superior Court. Still at issue is whether the Episcopal Church validly passed an internal rule claiming to hold local church property in trust for itself, and whether that rule applied to the three local churches. St. James, All Saints’ and St. David’s, as the property owners, never agreed to relinquish their property to the Episcopal Church upon ending their affiliation. St. James, All Saints’ and St. David’s have maintained all along that they have the right to use and possess the property they have owned and maintained for decades.
Legal spokesperson, Eric C. Sohlgren, said, “This decision puts one division of the appellate court in direct conflict with other California court of appeal decisions that for almost thirty years have rejected the idea that a court must automatically defer to a church denomination in church property disputes. Under this ruling, any big church which calls itself hierarchical could try to confiscate the property of a local congregation simply by passing an internal rule. That idea offends basic principles of fairness and property ownership. St. James, All Saints’ and St. David’s are seriously evaluating an appeal to the California Supreme Court.”
* * *
A Brief Recap: The Diocese of Los Angeles brought lawsuits against St. James, All Saints and St. David’s Anglican Churches and their volunteer board members in September of 2004. Subsequently, the national Episcopal Church intervened into the lawsuits against the three local churches.
On August 15, 2005, Judge Velasquez ruled in favor of St. James against the complaint brought by the Diocese of Los Angeles. In October 2005, Judge Velasquez issued a similar ruling in favor of All Saints and St. David’s. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles appealed the rulings to the California Court of Appeal.
In August 2005, the Complaint in Intervention filed separately by the national Episcopal Church (“TEC”) was still pending in the Orange County Superior Court.
In Fall 2005, the Court granted the three Churches’ challenges to TEC’s original Complaint in Intervention, but gave TEC an opportunity to amend the Complaint (but only if it could do so in good faith). TEC filed a First Amended Complaint in Intervention, which rehashed many of the church-rule arguments the Court had already rejected in prior rulings. The three local churches filed another challenge (called a demurrer) asking the Court to dismiss the First Amended Complaint without further leave to amend on the ground that even if all of the factual allegations were true, they did not state a legal wrong under California law. TEC also appealed that ruling to the California Court of Appeal.