U.S. Supreme Court Refuses Breakaway Petitions in Georgia and Connecticut Cases

U.S. Supreme Court Refuses Breakaway Petitions in Georgia and Connecticut Cases

On June 18, 2012 the United States Supreme Court denied petitions for writs of certiorari in two important church property cases from Georgia and Connecticut. The Court’s orders left in place decisions favoring the Presbyterian and Episcopal churches, both hierarchical churches, which had faced challenges from breakaway factions. These orders make final the judgments below and now open the way to the Churches’ recovery of local church property for their respective missions and ministries.

The Court’s actions mean that it will not consider the questions presented by the breakaway petitioners in those cases.

In Gauss v. Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Connecticut, the Connecticut Supreme Court had ruled October 11, 2011 to uphold the trial court’s summary judgment in favor of the Episcopal plaintiffs, including The Episcopal Church, which (1) declared that the real and personal property of the Bishop Seabury Episcopal Church was held in trust for The Episcopal Church and its Diocese, and that the breakaway defendants had no right, title, interest or authority to occupy, use or possess the property, (2) ordered the defendants to relinquish possession, custody and control of the property to the Episcopal plaintiffs, and (3) permitted the Episcopal plaintiffs to move for an order of accounting. A copy of that opinion is HERE. The breakaway faction then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, asking “Whether the First Amendment, as interpreted by this Court in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), requires state civil courts to enforce an alleged trust imposed on local church property by provisions in denominational documents, regardless of whether those provisions would be legally cognizable under generally applicable rules of state property and trust law.” The Court refused to consider the question.

Similarly, in Timberridge Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of Greater Atlanta, the Georgia Supreme Court had ruled November 21, 2011 that a trust existed in favor of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) as to any property held by the local church corporation. A copy of that opinion is HERE. The breakaway faction appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court asking “Whether the ‘neutral principles’ doctrine embodied in the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment permits imposition of a trust on church property when the creation of that trust violates the state’s property and trust laws.” The Court refused to consider the question.

Significantly, both Georgia and Connecticut have adopted a “neutral principles” analysis to resolve church property disputes. Over 100 years ago, the Texas Supreme Court adopted instead the “deference” or “identity” analysis, as sanctioned by the U.S. Supreme Court. The breakaway factions in the two cases now pending before the Texas Supreme Court, one from the Diocese of Fort Worth and one from the Diocese of Northwest Texas, ask that the Texas Supreme Court change its test to “neutral principles.” As shown in the Connecticut and Georgia cases above and in dozens of cases across the country, The Episcopal Church, its dioceses and congregations have consistently prevailed in church property disputes even when the “neutral principles” approach is applied.

In addition, the two breakaway factions in the Fort Worth and Northwest Texas cases have raised to the Texas Supreme Court the same trust arguments that the losing breakaways from Connecticut and George raised, now unsuccessfully, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In our diocesan case, we still await notice of the Texas Supreme Court’s setting the case for oral argument, likely in the fall.