On April 15, 2011, another court joined the long list of courts around the nation ruling that breakaway factions leaving The Episcopal Church cannot violate their oaths and seize Church property. The trial court in Cuyahoga County, Ohio issued an opinion and order granting a partial summary judgment in favor of The Episcopal Church and its Episcopal Diocese of Ohio against local leaders of five parishes who left The Episcopal Church in 2005 and 2006 and attempted to take church property with them. A copy of the case is here.
Recognizing the growing body of case law from other states on “almost precisely identical facts,” the Ohio court noted the “copious evidence” of the breakaway faction’s prior “pledged and actual submission to the Organizations of the Episcopal Church,” including their many promises to “conform to the church’s doctrine and discipline.” The court found that Plaintiffs had “conclusively established that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical in nature,” and that the defendants had not “produced a single court decision supporting their position on this issue.” The judge observed that the “real and personal property at issue is impressed with a trust in favor of the ECUSA and the Episcopal Diocese.” The court ruled that the breakaway defendants were acting contrary to law and “must therefore ‘surrender the church keys.’”
Notably, the Ohio court cited the recent case from the Court of Appeals in Austin, which also held that breakaway factions cannot violate their oaths and seize church property. The Austin court affirmed, consistent with courts around the nation, that under either approach described by the United States Supreme Court, “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.” Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas, 2011 WL 1005382 (Tex. Ct. App. March 16, 2011).