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The Episcopal Church loses in Texas Supreme Court

The Episcopal Church loses in Texas Supreme Court
Justices reject hierarchical argument for neutral principles of law

By Mary Ann Mueller 

Special Correspondent

August 31, 2013

AUSTIN, TEXAS-The Episcopal Church lost a major legal battle in Texas Friday when the nine-member state Supreme Court handed down two rulings which knocked the knees out from under Katharine Jefferts Schori's unrelenting drive to strip realigned Episcopalians of their property and buildings in the Lone Star state.

In both cases, the majority of justices ruled that the neutral principles of law must be followed in adjudicating legal disputes over church property. In the first case, entitled Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas, involving the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo, Justice Phil Johnson wrote: "We hold that the methodology referred to as 'neutral principles of law' must be used [by Texas courts in church property disputes]." It reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remanded the case back to the trial court for further proceedings that follow and apply neutral principles.

Having decided Masterson, the Court then turned to the case involving Bishop Jack L. Iker's Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. The majority opinion joined by Chief Justice Jefferson stated in part: "This direct appeal involves the same principal issue we addressed in Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas: what methodology is to be used when Texas courts decide which faction is entitled to a religious organization's property following a split or schism?" It went on: "But, in this case the trial court granted summary judgment on the basis of the 'deference' or 'identity' methodology, and the record does not warrant rendition of [summary] judgment to either party based on neutral principles of law." As a result, the Texas Supreme Court is kicking case number 11-0265 (The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth v. The Episcopal Church) back to the 141st District Court in Tarrant County and the Hon. John Chupp's lap.

It was Judge Chupp who granted a summary judgment to The Episcopal Church in Jan. 21, 2011 declaring that Bishop Jack Iker had to "surrender all Diocesan property, as well as control of the Diocesan Corporation, to the Diocesan plaintiffs and to provide an accounting of all Diocesan assets within 60 days of this order." To that ruling, Judge Chupp added: "the Court hereby orders the Defendants not to hold themselves out as leaders of the Diocese."

However the Texas Supreme Court now says: not so fast. "We reverse and remand to the trial court for further proceedings." A summary judgment is when a lone judge makes a determination in a case based upon what he finds to be undisputed facts as to the merits of the dispute. By doing so, the judge prevents the case from having to be tried to a jury to resolve any disputed issues of fact after hearing the evidence from both sides in open court.

A summary judgment may be granted only when the judge finds there are no disputed issues of fact for a jury to resolve. After either summary judgment or a full trial, the losing party usually appeals the case to a higher authority -- in this case, the Texas Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court took issue both with Judge Chupp's finding of no disputed facts and the law he applied. He did not follow neutral principles of law in dealing with a property dispute between ecclesial entities; instead, he relied on the "deference" or "identity" methodology, which requires belief in The Episcopal Church's claim to absolute hierarchal authority over dioceses and parishes.

Neutral principles of law refer to rules grounded in the law itself as opposed to rules based upon the special characteristics of religious entities and organizations. This means that a Texas court needs to rule based upon what the legal documents dictate rather than what the church doctrine, canons, or constitution say.

By ruling for the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo and kicking the Diocese of Fort Worth's case back into a lower court, the Supreme Court has established precedent for the role of neutral principles of law to be the guiding factor in dealing with church property litigation in Texas and with the continuing Episcopal Church cases in particular.

"Today the Texas Supreme Court has released rulings in our direct appeal and in the appeal of the parish of Good Shepherd in San Angelo," Diocese of Fort Worth Director of Communications Suzanne Gill explained in a news release.

"The Court adopted Neutral Principles of Law as the standard in Texas, overturned the Summary Judgment against us, and remanded our case to the trial court in Fort Worth for rehearing under Neutral Principles."

"The two decisions establish 'neutral principles of law' as the governing approach to church property disputes in Texas courts," explained Allan Haley, a noted attorney and canon lawyer who has been keeping a close eye on all of The Episcopal Church's on-going litigations. "And under that approach, as we have seen happen time and again more recently, courts are coming to realize that ECUSA's case has no neutral principles going for it."

Haley further explained that the last time the Texas Supreme Court addressed the neutral principles issue in dealing with church property was in 1909, 70 years before the U.S. Supreme Court authorized "neutral principles" in Jones v. Wolf, case number 443 U.S. 595, which was ruled on in 1979. Now Texas joins a host of states that are to use the neutral principle of law in dealing with church real estate disputes.

Several states have specially decided to use the Jones v. Wolf opinion their dealing with church property litigations. The 1979 case before the nation's highest court involved Vineville Presbyterian Church a Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA) congregation in Macon, Georgia originally founded 1903. The church membership voted in 1973 to realign with the more theologically conservative Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) taking their property with them.

PCUSA's position was that Vineville was bound by the control of the Session, Presbytery, Synod, and ultimately the General Assembly so the congregants could not take their building with them. Supreme Court Justice Harold Blackmun - who is noted for his authorship of the Roe v Wade ruling - wrote the majority Jones v. Wolf opinion which states: "The state has an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes, and in providing a civil forum where the ownership of church property can be determined conclusively," thus upholding the Georgia Supreme Court's ruling in affirming a lower court's decision in applying Georgia's neutral principles of law to the Presbyterian dispute.

Alas, Vineville Presbyterian is no longer. In 2009, the once large Caucasian congregation of 600-plus dwindled to fewer than 50 and voted to disband turning their property over to the Central Georgia Presbytery which immediately used it for the restart of a multiracial and multicultural congregation at the same location. The redefined parish is named Strong Tower Fellowship.

The states, which specially reference Jones v, Wolf in using natural principles of law in dealing with ecclesial property matters, include: Alaska, Arkansas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Wisconsin. The Episcopal Church has already experienced that the Dennis Canon has no weight in South Carolina. In 2009, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled, "South Carolina courts are to apply the neutral principles of law approach as approved by the Supreme Court of the United States in Jones v. Wolf."

That Sept. 18 ruling came down concerning All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. Protestant Episcopal Church, in which the South Carolina Supreme Court declared that the Waccamaw Parish dated as far back a 1734 and that the first written trust deed was signed in 1745 when 60 acres were deeded "forever in Trust For the Inhabitants On Waccamaw Neck for Use of A Chapel or Church for divine Worship of the Church of England established by Law․" The Church of England's direct authority over colonial parishes ceased during the Revolutionary War. The parish was re-established by the South Carolina General Assembly in 1778.

In 1789 the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States was formed from nine original founding dioceses including the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina that was created in 1785 with the Waccamaw Parish being a part of it. Fast-forward to 1902 when All Saints became concerned about the status of its charter following the destruction of church documents in a "Great Strom" -- possibly a hurricane around the turn of the 20th century. In 1903, the trustees of the Diocese of South Carolina signed a 1903 Quit-Claim Deed thereby transferring any interest the Diocese may have had in the congregation's property to All Saints Parish in Waccamaw.

In 1979, the Dennis Canon came on the scene attempting to draw all Episcopal congregations along with their personal and real properties under its umbrella so that the chattels may be held by or for the benefit and in trust for this Church and the Diocese that the congregation is located. However Canon I.7.4 in no way limits the power and authority of the local congregation so long as it remains a part of, and subject to, The Episcopal Church and its Constitution and Canons.

"The Dennis Canon purports to declare a trust, in favor of the ECUSA and the Diocese, on all real and personal property held by any congregation," the South Carolina Supreme Court ruling explains. "No such property canons existed in 1902 when the Diocese directed the congregation to incorporate, or when it executed the 1903 Quit-Claim Deed in favor of the newly created All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc."

In 2000, All Saints did a title search and learned that the 1745 Trust Deed and the 1903 Quit-Claim Deed were the only recorded land deeds pertaining to the congregation's property. About that same time, the Diocese of South Carolina recorded a notice in Georgetown County legally declaring that the Waccamaw congregation held its property, pursuant to the Dennis Canon, in trust for the benefit of the ECUSA and the Diocese.

Applying natural principles of law only, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that when the Church Act of 1767 formed the colonial All Saints Parish, the Statute of Uses operated to execute the trust created by the 1745 Trust Deed and title vested in the intended beneficiary, the congregation of All Saints Parish; that the 1903 Quit-Claim Deed makes it clear that All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc. holds title to its property noting that All Saints Parish congregation was officially incorporated in 1820, that the 1903 Quit-Claim Deed makes clear that title to the property at issue is currently held by the congregation's corporate entity-All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc.; and that the Dennis Canon, which is a church-based canon, has no legal effect on title to the All Saints congregation's property.

In addition, the Diocese did not, at the time it recorded the 2000 Notice, have any interest in the congregation's property. Therefore, the recordation of the 2000 Notice could not have created a trust over the property.

"For the aforementioned reasons, we hold that title to the property at issue is held by All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc., the Dennis Canons had no legal effect on the title to the congregation's property, and the 2000 Notice should be removed from the Georgetown County records," the Supreme Court ruled.

The All Saints ruling has set a precedent in South Carolina for the application of natural principles of law in determining church property ownership and taking the teeth out of the Dennis Canon which should come to play as The Diocese of South Carolina's continues its battle with The Church in South Carolina over diocesan property that dates back to colonial days.

Now Texas, too, has a precedent-setting state Supreme Court ruling in place to help guide the courts in determining church property ownership using only the neutral principles of law and not getting mired in church politics, doctrine, constitution and canons in sorting out the intricacies of ecclesial property ownership.

Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline.

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