NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. ”“ September 12, 2007 ”“ The California Supreme Court today unanimously granted the petitions by St. James Anglican Church, Newport Beach, All Saints’ Church, Long Beach, and St. David’s Anglican Church, North Hollywood, to review the Fourth Appellate District decision of Episcopal Church Cases.
The grant of review has the effect of nullifying the Fourth Appellate District decision, meaning that no trial court or attorney can rely upon it until the Supreme Court ultimately decides the case. This is encouraging news to countless church congregations in California, including Russian Orthodox, Anglican, Presbyterian and Evangelical, who have been threatened with the loss of their property after trial courts began to rely upon Episcopal Church Cases.
“Our petitions asked the Supreme Court to intervene and calm the legal turmoil caused by Episcopal Church Cases. By disregarding almost thirty years of California law where local church property rights and donations of local church members are respected, Episcopal Church Cases adopted a throwback theory where local church property could be confiscated by a large institutional church simply by passing a rule,” said Eric Sohlgren, lead attorney for St. James Church. “This unanimous and quick decision by the Supreme Court to grant review indicates that it has a strong interest in restoring clarity to the law in how California courts are to decide church property disputes.”
“We are extremely pleased that the Supreme Court has decided to take this important case to help churches throughout California be able plan and grow for their future,” said Lynn Moyer, counsel for All Saints’ and St. David’s. “The same founding fathers who created the United States Constitution created the Constitution for Anglican churches in the United States following the American Revolution. Congregations were formed and independent long before any ”˜diocese’ or ”˜national church’ was ever established. It was never intended that these local congregations who are independent corporations put their property in trust for the Episcopal Church. Title to the properties is held by the local congregations. To allow the Episcopal Church to rip these properties away from these congregations after 80 years is wrong, as numerous families who have attended these churches for decades can attest.”
In July 2007, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, reversed the Orange County Superior Court’s prior ruling that the three former Episcopal churches, which ended their affiliation with the national denomination in 2004, did not forfeit their property by changing their affiliation to another province of the Anglican church. This division of the appellate court broke with nearly thirty years of California church property law applying “neutral principles” (i.e., who holds the deed, who bought or donated the property, and whether the local church ever agreed to turn over the property), and instead ruled that 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, and never consented to the rule.
St. James, All Saints’ and St. David’s, as the sole property owners, never agreed to relinquish their property to the Episcopal Church upon changing their affiliation, and they have consistently maintained that they have the right to use and possess the property they have owned and maintained for decades.
The Supreme Court also granted review to decide whether a California statute which allows courts to expedite cases where people are sued for exercising their free speech rights, known as the anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) is applicable to this dispute. The statute subjects to early scrutiny cases filed by large private interests to deter individuals from exercising their political or legal rights to free speech or to petition the government. Attorneys for the three churches argued that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles are large, wealthy and powerful religious organizations that sought to stifle these fundamental rights when church members spoke out about their disagreements with the Episcopal Church, including through the act of disaffiliation itself.
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A Brief Recap
The Episcopal 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 church corporations and their volunteer board members.
On August 15, 2005, the Honorable David C. Velasquez of the Orange County Superior Court 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 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.
In July 2007, the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Division Three, in an opinion authored by Presiding Justice David G. Sills, reversed the Orange County Superior Court’s prior ruling that three church corporations which disaffiliated from the national denomination did not forfeit their property. This division of the appellate court broke with nearly thirty years of California church property law, and Division Two of the Fourth Appellate District, by ruling that general churches 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 2007, the three churches filed petitions with the California Supreme Court to settle a church property dispute case that affects countless churches and their members throughout California.