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By Patrick M. Walker of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram
The nearly 4-year-old property dispute between the two groups that claim to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth is heading to the Texas Supreme Court.

Justices agreed last week to hear oral arguments Oct. 16, the same day the state’s highest civil court was already set to hear a similar case involving an Episcopal church in San Angelo.

A group headed by Bishop Jack Iker made a direct appeal to the Texas Supreme Court after losing its case in a Tarrant County civil court to maintain control of numerous properties, including the stately St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in downtown Fort Worth.

“Bishop Iker and our legal team are extremely pleased with this development, which brings us closer to a complete resolution of the lawsuits which began in April 2009,” the group said in a statement posted on its website Friday.

Background

The dispute stems from the decision in 2008 by Iker and a majority of the 56 congregations in the Fort Worth diocese to leave the national church because of disagreements that included the ordination of a gay bishop.

Iker’s group, which continues to call itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, allowed the parishes that voted to remain in the Episcopal Church to keep their assets. It took the rest of them, saying they were diocesan property under state law.

The group that remained with the national church, led by provisional Bishop Wallis Ohl, and the national church sued in district court contending that all the assets belonged to the national church. In addition to St. Andrew’s, properties include Camp Crucis in Granbury and churches throughout a 24-county region.

In January 2011, state District Judge John Chupp in Fort Worth agreed with the national church, instructing Iker’s group to “surrender all Diocesan property as well as control of the Diocese Corporation” and “not to hold themselves out as leaders of the Diocese.”

Chupp’s summary judgment ruled that the national church is a hierarchal church with authority over its dioceses and other subgroups.

Change of plans

Iker’s group planned to appeal Chupp’s ruling to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth but changed course when the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin held that the national church is the rightful owner of the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo. The court rejected arguments by breakaway parishioners that control of the property rested with the majority of parishioners. Iker’s group asked for expedited oral arguments before the Supreme Court, which granted its request Friday.

In a statement on its website, Ohl’s group sounded confident that the trial and appeals court rulings in the San Angelo case were correct. The two courts “both found that the breakaway parties had no right to take historic Episcopal Church property that they had sworn to protect,” the statement said, “just as the Fort Worth trial court found in our diocesan case.”

Iker’s group is now associated with the Argentina-based Southern Cone province of the worldwide Anglican Communion and with the Anglican Church in North America, made up of parties that have left the national church.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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