On March 16, 2011, the Court of Appeals in Austin issued its opinion affirming the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the Diocese of Northwest Texas and the continuing Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in San Angelo. A copy of the opinion is here.
In 2006, a majority of the members of Good Shepherd voted to leave The Episcopal Church to affiliate with the Diocese of Uganda, Africa; however, they refused the order of Bishop C. Wallis Ohl, then the bishop of Northwest Texas, to vacate the property by January 5, 2007. The loyal Episcopalians reorganized to elect new vestry members to fill the places of the departing vestry members, and Bishop Ohl appointed a priest-in-charge. The Diocese and the “Continuing Parish Leaders” filed suit against the departing leaders seeking declaratory and injunctive relief. On December 16, 2009, the trial court in Tom Green County entered summary judgment for the Episcopal parties. A copy of the judgment is here.
The trial court’s summary judgment declared in part that:
- The Former Parish Leaders may not divert, alienate, or use the real or personal property of Good Shepherd, except in furtherance of the mission of the Episcopal Church as provided by and in accordance with the Constitutions and Canons of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese;
- The continuing Parish of the Good Shepherd is identified as and represented by those persons recognized by the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas;
- The actions of the Defendants in seeking to withdraw Good Shepherd as a Parish of the Diocese and from the Episcopal Church are void and without effect; and
- All real and personal property of the Good Shepherd is held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the Diocese.
In rejecting the arguments of the departing defendants, the Court of Appeals in Austin concluded in part:
- “Thus, the essence of the dispute before us can be seen as an inherently ecclesiastical question: which parishioners–the loyal Episcopalian minority or the breakaway Anglican majority–represent Good Shepherd, in whose name the disputed property is held? It is not within the jurisdiction of this Court to decide such an issue, which is inextricably linked with matters of church discipline, membership, and faith. Instead, we are bound by the decisions of the highest church judicatories within the Episcopal Church hierarchy to which the matter has been carried.”
- The “property is owned by Good Shepherd–not the parishioners who disaffiliated from it.”
- The “trial court’s judgment can be affirmed whether we decide this appeal by applying neutral principles of law or by deferring resolution of the determinative question of identity to the proper authorities within the Episcopal Church hierarchy. (Citations omitted.) Under either methodology, giving due deference to the Diocese’s resolution of the ecclesiastical questions bearing on this appeal, we conclude that when the Former Parish Leaders and the other parishioners aligned with them disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church, the church property remained under the authority and control of the Episcopal Church. Accordingly, the vote to disaffiliate was effective only as to those members who sought to withdraw from the Episcopal Church; it did not have the effect of withdrawing Good Shepherd itself from its union with the Episcopal Church, as the Former Parish Leaders presume. (Footnote omitted.) Further, having found that the Continuing Parish Leaders are entitled to possession and use of the property, the trial court did not err in declaring that property owned by the local Episcopal parish is held in trust for the Episcopal Church, pursuant to the Episcopal Church Constitution and Canons.”
The departing defendants can appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.
This ruling address is consistent with and clearly supports the analysis and rulings in the Amended Order on Summary Judgment signed February 8, 2011 by Judge John P. Chupp of the 141st District Court of Tarrant County.