Tennessee Court Rules in Favor of Episcopal Diocese in Property Dispute

Tennessee Court Rules in Favor of Episcopal Diocese in Property Dispute

On April 25, 2012 the Court of Appeals of Tennessee in Nashville issued an opinion in favor of The Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Tennessee in a property dispute with a breakaway group from St. Andrew’s Parish, Nashville.

A copy of the opinion is HERE.

St. Andrew’s Parish, Nashville asserted its intention to leave The Diocese of Tennessee. The Diocese filed a declaratory judgment action to determine whether it or the local congregation owned and controlled the real and personal property where the local congregation worshiped. The trial court found that The Episcopal Church is hierarchical, composed of three tiers “with the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church exercising ultimate authority,” and, based on the governing canons and constitutions of the Church and its Diocese, ruled that the local parish held the property in trust for the Diocese and The Episcopal Church. (Op. at 2 and 17). The church appealed.

The court of appeals affirmed the trial court’s judgment, noting, “St. Andrews explicitly acknowledged and acceded to the constitution and canons of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Tennessee. . . . [The breakaways] would have us ignore the clear language of these and other documents described earlier in this opinion. This we will not do.”

Applying a “neutral principles” analysis, the appellate court, in part:

  • Affirmed “in all respects” the trial court’s judgment that the parish property was impressed with a trust in favor of the Church and its Diocese;
  • Rejected the application of the 2009 South Carolina Supreme Court decision in All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina;
  • Rejected the breakaways’ argument that the court should only consider the language of the deed and disregard the myriad of Church governing documents and historical facts demonstrating the existence of a trust;
  • Rejected affidavits and a “Bishops’ Statement” from a handful of disaffected bishops and other officials who opined that The Episcopal Church was not hierarchical.

The breakaways from St. Andrew’s asserted that there is no trust in the parish property because “The Episcopal Church is not hierarchical for all purposes and, in particular, with regard to property ownership and control.” The court cited the Masterson decision (Good Shepherd, San Angelo), now on appeal before the Texas Supreme Court, in addition to numerous other cases from Texas and across the country, in soundly rejecting that theory, stating,

The trial court described the organization of The Episcopal Church, including its three tiers and the governance of the general or central church, its dioceses, and its parishes. Those facts establish that The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church, using the test set out above and the tests applied in Tennessee and other courts.

The breakaway group also failed in their attempt to manufacture an issue of fact on whether The Episcopal Church is hierarchical for temporal matters, including property disputes. They submitted affidavits and a Bishops’ Statement, dated April 18, 2009, from a handful of bishops and former bishops, but which “does not appear to be sanctioned by The Episcopal Church or the General Convention,” suggesting that The Episcopal Church is a “voluntary association of equal dioceses.” Applying basic rules of evidence, the court rejected this attempt to go around the authority of the General Convention, stating,

The affidavits [the breakaway group] offered do not create a disputed issue of material fact because the affiants were simply offering their opinions and interpretations of the constitutions and canons, not facts. The constitutions and canons, as well as St. Andrew’s filings and Articles of Association, speak for themselves and are determinative of the issue.

Significantly, this decision in favor of the Episcopalians was based on a “neutral principles” analysis, the theory that the breakaways in our case insist must be adopted by the Texas Supreme Court for deciding church disputes in Texas.

This Tennessee case echoes many of the same arguments promoted by the breakaway group in our local diocesan litigation. And this case joins dozens more across the country in consistently rejecting those attempts to circumvent the hierarchical authority of The Episcopal Church over sacred property given by generations of loyal Episcopalians for the mission and ministry of the Church.