On November 3, 2014, the United States Supreme Court denied the petition for writ of certiorari filed by the Episcopal Parties on June 19, 2014. The case will thus proceed to retrial on remand in the 141st District Court of Tarrant County, Texas, in Fort Worth, with the Honorable John P. Chupp presiding. The 141st District Court likely will hear summary judgment motions in early 2015, with the losing parties likely to appeal that decision to the state appellate courts and then back to the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional issues.
The case arises from the decision almost six years ago of the former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and some diocesan and parish leaders to sever ties with The Episcopal Church and claim the name and property of the Episcopal diocese for their new church. The loyal Episcopalians across the diocese reorganized at a special meeting of the diocesan convention early in 2009, filled the vacant church offices with Episcopalians, and continued the ministry of the Church in the diocese. The Episcopalian officials filed suit in 2009 seeking to regain the historic names and property of the diocese accumulated by the Church since 1838 across 24 counties of North Texas.
In January 2011, the trial court rightly returned the name and property of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth to the Episcopalians recognized by The Episcopal Church as the continuing Episcopal Diocese. In 2013, the Texas Supreme Court reviewed the case and decided to change the law governing church disputes in Texas. The Texas Supreme Court ordered the trial court to hear the case again under the new doctrine.
In June 2014, the loyal Episcopalians asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Texas Supreme Court’s ruling, in part to consider the question of whether a state can change the rules for church property after the dispute has erupted, a question left open by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1979. At the same time, the loyal Episcopalians and breakaway defendants have been preparing their summary judgment motions for the trial court under Texas’s new doctrine.
Because the case was remanded in August 2013 by the Texas Supreme Court for further proceedings, that decision was “interlocutory” or non-final, which the U.S. Supreme Court rarely accepts for review. Thus, while the Episcopal Parties are disappointed not to have the faster resolution the U.S. Supreme Court could have offered, they look forward to filing their summary judgment papers and showing why the breakaway faction’s decades of commitments are enforceable under basic neutral principles of Texas law.
Denial of review of an interlocutory order does not set precedent on the issues raised, and the Episcopal Parties may still raise the legal issues from the interlocutory petition in the event the case is later appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, the Right Rev. Rayford B. High, Jr., reminds the Episcopalians in the diocese that, while this order and the consequent additional delay is disappointing, it does not change the mission and ministry of the many Episcopalians who continue to constitute the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. “We continue the exciting work to be The Episcopal Church in this part of Texas and to be the local witnesses and prophetic voices of the Church as North Texans continue to search for spiritual wholeness.”
The diocese is preparing for the 32nd annual meeting of its Convention November 14-15 at Jack Daniel’s Club at Globe Life Park in Arlington, and for the triennial General Convention of The Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, in June 2015.