A California Supreme Court decision this week that blocked three breakaway Episcopal Church parishes from holding onto their church buildings and property marks the latest in a string of legal victories for the national church and casts doubt on the efforts of other parishes to keep church grounds as they secede from the Episcopal Church over what they see as its liberal drift on matters like the ordination of gay clergy.
The Episcopal Church, with 2.1 million members, hopes the California ruling also sets a precedent for the property rights of the national denomination as several whole dioceses that have left the church attempt to keep their buildings and property. The ruling's implications for legal fights at the diocesan level are less clear.
"If the court had ruled against the national church, it could have given legal support for the development of the so-called new province," Trinity College religion scholar Frank Kirkpatrick says, referring to a coalition of four U.S. Episcopal dioceses and dozens more parishes that recently announced plans to start a rival denomination.
Until now, the Episcopal Church has served as the sole North American province of the Anglican Communion, the world's third-largest Christian body, which is led by the archbishop of Canterbury.
In accepting the Episcopal Church's argument for maintaining ownership of its property, says Kirkpatrick, author of The Episcopal Church in Crisis, the decision is likely to deter other breakaway parishes from suing for their property. "It's very costly to go to court," he says, "and if the trend is not to recognize the authority of the local congregation, what's the point?"
Experts on the Episcopal Church said the ruling would be a likely bellwether for similar legal skirmishes over property between the national church and local parishes in half a dozen other states. That's what the Episcopal Church is hoping for. "The California Supreme Court's decision was precedent-setting," said John R. Shiner, chancellor for the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles and the church's lead counsel in the California litigation. "It clarified to a large degree what the rules will be going forward and will the basis for clarification elsewhere."
In the unanimous California decision, handed down Monday, the court ruled that "although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be bound by its governing documents. These governing documents make clear that church property is held in trust for the general church. . . ."
In the United States, courts have ruled in recent years on roughly a dozen property dispute cases between the Episcopal Church and breakaway parishes, and the decisions have almost always been in favor of the mother church. The major exception has been in Virginia, where an unusual Civil War-era statute on "divided" property has helped nine breakaway Episcopal parishes in their legal fight to keep their property. That case appears to be headed to the state Supreme Court.
According to the Episcopal Church, 83 parishes have voted to leave the church, out of a total of about 7,100 parishes. Some of those breakaway churches have aligned themselves with conservative Anglican bishops in Africa and elsewhere in the so-called Global South, where Anglicanism is experiencing rapid growth. In the United States, the Episcopal Church is losing members.
In the face of the California ruling, breakaway churches have vowed to continue working to launch an alternative Anglican denomination in North America, even if it means losing church property. "Parishes are not choosing to leave the Episcopal Church because of their estimation of the possibility of maintaining ownership of property but because of significant theological disagreements," a spokesman for Bishop Robert Duncan, the leader of the conservative breakaway dioceses and parishes, said in an interview on Tuesday. "This decision doesn't begin to change that."