In a comprehensive and unanimous thirty-page decision filed Friday morning, May 22, the Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Bishop Jack L. Iker and reversed the Court of Appeals’ earlier decision to the effect that ECUSA’s rump diocese, and not Bishop Iker’s diocese, controlled the Texas corporation which holds title to the properties of those parishes which in 2008 voted to withdraw their diocese from the unaffiliated and unincorporated association that historically has been called the (Protestant) Episcopal Church in the United States of America.
The decision is as straightforward an application of “neutral principles of law” (espoused by the U.S. Supreme Court in Jones v. Wolf) as one could find among the courts to which ECUSA has presented its “hierarchical church” sophistries. It repudiates those sophistries in a succinct passage (pp. 24-25):
In sum, TEC’s determinations as to which faction is the true diocese loyal to the church and which congregants are in good standing are ecclesiastical determinations to which the courts must defer. But applying neutral principles to the organizational documents, the question of property ownership is not entwined with or settled by those determinations. The Fort Worth Diocese’s identity depends on what its documents say. To that end, the Diocesan Constitution and Canons provided who could make amendments and under what circumstances; none of those circumstances incorporate or rely on an ecclesiastical determination by the national church; and nothing in the diocese’s or national church’s documents precluded amendments rescinding an accession to or affiliation with TEC. Applying neutral principles of law, we hold that the majority faction is the Fort Worth Diocese and parishes and missions in union with that faction hold equitable title to the disputed property under the Diocesan Trust.
The opinion then makes short shrift of ECUSA’s remaining arguments. It demolishes ECUSA’s Dennis Canon, first by holding that a beneficiary like ECUSA cannot declare a trust in its favor in Texas on property that it does not own, and second by holding that even if the Dennis Canon could be said to create a trust in ECUSA’s favor, the Canon does not, as Texas law specifies, make the trust “expressly irrevocable”. Thus it was well within the power of Bishop Iker’s Fort Worth Diocese to revoke any such trust, which it did by a diocesan canon adopted in 1989 — to which ECUSA never objected in the twenty years following that act.
The Texas Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ holding that ECUSA could not assert title to the parishes’ properties by way of any “constructive” trust (a creation of the law to prevent a wrongdoer’s “unjust enrichment”), or by the ancient doctrines of estoppel or trespass-to-try-title, or by accusing Bishop Iker and his fellow trustees of the diocesan corporation of breaches of fiduciary obligation allegedly owed to ECUSA. Each of those claims would involve the civil courts unconstitutionally in disputes over religious doctrine.
In conclusion, the Court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeals on the grounds last noted, reversed its principal holding that as an ecclesiastical matter, ECUSA got to say which corporation under Texas civil law was the entity which held the parishes’ property in trust, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment that Bishop Iker’s corporation was in law the trustee of the properties of the parishes in his diocese.
Read it all.