U.S. Supreme Court declines to review California property decision

U.S. Supreme Court declines to review California property decision

By Mary Frances Schjonberg, October 05, 2009

[Episcopal News Service] The U.S. Supreme Court October 5 refused to grant a petition of review from St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach, which broke away from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

The court’s order came on the opening day of its fall term and was made public without comment in a 91-page list of procedural decisions it has made affecting the agenda for the term.

The breakaway congregation in June had asked the court to overturn a January California Supreme Court decision that the parish property was held in trust for the mission and ministry of the Los Angeles diocese and the wider Episcopal Church. The petition to the court asked it to decide whether, under the U.S. Constitution, certain rules of property ownership must yield to the decisions of hierarchical religious denominations.

The full text of the petition is here.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori’s office said shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s announcement that it was pleased with the ruling.

“The Diocese of Los Angeles greatly appreciates the action and insight of the U.S. Supreme Court in declining to hear the case,” Los Angeles Bishop Jon Bruno said in a statement posted on the diocese’s website. He noted that the decision “follows the strong and comprehensive opinions issued by the California Court of Appeal and affirmed by the state Supreme Court.”

“I reiterate that reconciliation and renewal in Christ continue to be our priorities in this matter, with our baptismal covenant calling us to respect every person’s dignity,” Bruno said. “The Episcopal Church continues to live out its traditional mission of welcoming people who hold a diversity of opinion while remaining united in common prayer.”

Within a few weeks, the diocese and the Episcopal Church are expected to ask the trial court in Orange County to enter a judgment in their favor and end the lawsuit.

In a statement about the court’s decision posted on St. James’ website, the Rev. Richard Crocker, the parish’s senior pastor, said: “While it is obviously disappointing, we always felt the court might prefer to wait until the trial proceedings were final. Our battle is far from over.”

Crocker added that “we believe God has asked us to stand steadfast for his gospel as well as to remain steadfast on this legal battlefield.”

A majority of St. James’ members voted to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church and to realign with the Anglican Province of Uganda in August 2004, citing theological disagreements and the consecration of an openly gay Episcopal Church bishop. They sought to retain the Newport Beach property.

A year after the disaffiliation, Orange County Superior Judge David C. Velasquez ruled the congregation owned the property free of any interest by the diocese or the Episcopal Church. The California Court of Appeal reversed the lower court ruling in July 2007, holding that the rules of the church required that parish property be used for the mission of the diocese and the wider church. It was that ruling that the state supreme court upheld in January.