A conservative Newport Beach parish that severed ties with the Episcopal Church in a dispute over scriptural teaching and homosexuality is the rightful owner of its buildings and other property, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled Monday.
Judge David C. Velasquez's ruling in favor of St. James Church finalized a tentative opinion he announced last week that rejected the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles' claim that the local congregation held the multimillion-dollar property in trust for the diocese -- and that it forfeited any right to the buildings and other property, including hymnals, when it broke with the diocese and national church.
The Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the six-county diocese, said he would appeal. His attorney, diocesan chancellor John R. Shiner, called the judge's ruling "a grave error."
Church conservatives said Monday's ruling was a setback not only for the Los Angeles diocese but also for efforts by the 2.3-million member national Episcopal Church to stem defections by parishes and dioceses over deep differences about the national church's decision in 2003 to ordain an openly gay priest in a committed relationship as bishop of New Hampshire.
"I think the verdict ... is a momentous verdict across the U.S.," said the Rev. Canon David Anderson, president of the Atlanta-based American Anglican Council, which has assisted dissident congregations to leave the Episcopal Church. "It gives great encouragement to Episcopalians and people of other Christian denominations that hold to the fact that the local congregation that buys the property and buildings does, in fact, own their property," Anderson said in a telephone interview.
In handing down his ruling, Velasquez said that the diocese had failed to show that it ever had legal title to the St. James property or that the property had been held in trust by St. James for the diocese. The diocese had argued that under canon law, the property was held in trust for the diocese and national church.
"California courts are not bound by canon law," the judge wrote. State courts, he said, followed "neutral principles of law" in resolving church disputes, relying on deeds, articles of incorporation, state statutes and the rules of the "general" church or denomination.
"No evidence has been presented that a trust over parish property has ever been created under statutory law," Velasquez said.
The diocese also lost on 1st Amendment grounds. The judge said that St. James was exercising its free speech rights when it broke with the diocese, issued a press release declaring its estrangement and amended its articles of incorporation to write out any references to the diocese.
"Such acts arise out of and are in furtherance of the [St. James'] exercise of the right to speak on a matter of public interest," the judge wrote. "The views expressed by the defendants concern matters of public interest. How churches in America are reacting to the different viewpoints of homosexuality is currently a topic of much public significance."
The Rev. Praveen Bunyan, rector of St. James, said, "Freedom of speech and freedom of religion in this country is still upheld and we just rejoice in that." He added, "I would not speak for other churches, but I'm sure other orthodox churches would be very blessed by this goodness. I'm sure they rejoice with us."
Told the diocese would appeal, Bunyan said, "I don't know if I should be surprised, seeing the way they have continued to cause us pain.... I would wish that the Episcopal Church would say all right.... We want to be about God's mission and be about God's work."
St. James attorney Eric C. Sohlgren was more direct. He charged that the diocese tried to "intimidate the church and take away its property so the members would have no place to worship."
Shiner, the diocesan attorney, said the issue was not free speech but who owned the property. "When [St. James] became part of the diocese, they committed themselves both orally and in writing to abide by the canons of the church, both national and local," he said in an interview after the ruling. In a prepared statement, Bruno added: "We have never disputed that members of the departing congregations are free to worship how they wish and with whom."
The Santa Ana ruling marked the second time in a year that a court had ruled in favor of a congregation that broke from its national body. A year ago, the state Court of Appeal in Fresno ruled that a United Methodist congregation that left the Methodist denomination had a right to keep its church buildings.
The issue in that case was whether St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Fresno could revoke a trust with the denomination, which promised that the church buildings would be held in trust not only for the local congregation but also for the national United Methodist Church. The court ruled that because the trust had not been expressly declared irrevocable, the local congregation could end it.
Besides St. James, two other parishes -- All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David's Church in North Hollywood -- left the Los Angeles diocese and were sued. Velasquez is scheduled to rule on their cases but has not said when he would act.