In a victory for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, a state appeals panel has upheld the diocese's claim to the buildings and other property of three conservative parishes that had severed their ties with the diocese.
The unanimous decision by a panel of the appeals court in Santa Ana reversed lower court rulings in the case, which involves St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David's Church in North Hollywood.
The ruling was reached late Monday by a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal.
In August 2004, the dissident parishes pulled out of the six-county Los Angeles Diocese and the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church, citing differences over biblical interpretation, including what they described as the diocese's too-lenient views on homosexuality. Instead, they placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a conservative Anglican bishop in Uganda.
The Los Angeles Diocese sued, arguing that the parishes held their church buildings in trust for the diocese and the national Episcopal Church and thus were not entitled to the property. An Orange County trial judge, in separate decisions, had ruled in favor of the parishes.
The legal battle has been both a tug-of-war over real property and a local reflection of tensions at the heart of a deepening rift within the Episcopal Church, and between that church and much of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The Episcopal Church is the American branch of Anglicanism, but for years has been at odds with much of the communion over the U.S. church's more liberal views on homosexuality and other issues.
In Monday's ruling, however, presiding Justice David G. Sills, who wrote for the panel, made clear that it had confined its decision to the property dispute and not the broader controversy.
"Readers will look in vain in this opinion for any indication of what religious controversy may have prompted the disaffiliation," Sills wrote. " ... That controversy is irrelevant to this action."
Sills later concluded, "The right of the general church in this case to enforce a trust on the local parish property is clear."
Officials with the Los Angeles Diocese said Tuesday they were pleased by the decision.
"I believe this is a conclusive statement that the property will come back to us and that the lower court will be directed by this opinion," said the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the diocese. "Now we can get about the business of healing and about the business of being a church. It's been a long ordeal."
But Eric Sohlgren, lead lawyer for the three parishes, called the decision an anomaly, saying it ran counter to what he described as nearly 30 years of legal precedent in California.
"Church property disputes have been looked at through neutral principles: who has the title to the property, who bought it, who maintains it and what state statutes say," he said. "What the court said here was that if a hierarchical church wants to take control of local church property, all it has to do is pass a rule."
Sohlgren said the parishes would decide within a week whether to appeal to the California Supreme Court.
At St. James, one church staffer said she and others there were surprised by the ruling.
"This is a difficult time in the global church in the Anglican community, and the decision of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the national Episcopal Church to proceed with this in court is a deep disappointment to me as an Anglican," said Cathie P. Young, pastor for discipleship at St. James and a 20-year member of the church.
Young, who is preparing for ordination, said she agreed with the majority of St. James' congregation that voted to "disaffiliate" with the Episcopal Church in 2004. "In our opinion as orthodox Anglicans
Officials with All Saints and St. David's churches could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
One church observer, the Rev. Eddie Gibbs, senior professor of church growth at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and an Episcopal priest, called the ruling "a sad reversal."
He said the issues went beyond the church's stance on gay ordination and involved statements that its leadership has made on doctrinal issues. "It's an ongoing, tragic saga. It's a gross failure of leadership of the Episcopal Church," Gibbs said.
Bruno and diocesan attorney John R. Shiner have argued that the issue was not free speech or even theological differences, but who had rightful claim to the property. "While individuals are always free to leave the Episcopal Church and worship however they please, they do not have the right to take parish property with them," Bruno said.
But Bruno also said he would welcome back "with open arms" any dissident church members -- or their rectors -- who chose to return. "We want to move forward with these as Episcopal churches," he said. "I don't want to be punitive with them. I want to be loving and go forward."
Meanwhile, the diocese's lawsuit against a fourth parish -- St. Luke's of the Mountains in La Crescenta -- may be decided, at least in the first round, on July 3 when it is set for a hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court on motions for a summary judgment.