Breakaway Parish Can't Keep Property
HARTFORD, Conn. -- A 135-year-old parish that broke away from the Episcopal Church after it consecrated its first openly gay bishop cannot keep its building and land, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled Friday.
Justices rejected an appeal of a lower court ruling by the Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, which like dozens of parishes nationwide split from the national Episcopal Church after the 2003 appointment of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. Bishop Seabury Church's governing board voted in 2007 to join the more conservative Convocation of Anglicans in North America.
Similar land disputes involving breakaway Episcopal parishes have been playing out across the country, with most courts ruling in favor of the national church and its dioceses. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a similar case involving a California church in 2009.
The Groton parish's lawyer had argued that the Episcopal Church has no right to the property and the land deed is in the parish's name. But the state diocese said church rules prohibit congregations from walking away with church properties, and those properties are held in trust for the denomination.
Justice Peter Zarella, in writing the 6-0 decision, agreed with the diocese, citing the so-called Dennis Canon approved in 1979 by the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
"We now conclude under neutral principles of law that the Dennis Canon applies and that it clearly establishes an express trust interest in the property in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese," Zarella wrote.
Bishop Ian T. Douglas of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut said Friday that he wants to meet with the parishioners to discuss their options, ranging from rejoining the Episcopal faith to leaving the property.
"It's a sad circumstance when other Christians are forced to resolve their disputes in court, because that draws significant resources away from our work in the wider world in service of God's mission," Douglas said. "It's been a long and bad process. There are no victors here."
Parishioners released a statement saying they were going to talk with their lawyers about what to do next. They didn't say whether they were considering appealing to a federal court.
"We are disappointed that the Supreme Court has rejected the important legal principle that the owner of property identified in a recorded deed is the true owner of the property," the statement said. "Our members relied upon that principle in donating their time and money to build a multimillion dollar church building. Special rules should not be made for favored religious denominations."
The parish's pastor, the Rev. Ronald Gauss, didn't return messages seeking comment Friday.
The parish along the southeastern Connecticut shoreline asked the state Supreme Court to overturn the decision of a lower court judge who ruled last year that the church and land belong to the state diocese and the national church. The congregation was allowed to continue worshipping at the site while its appeals were pending.
Both the 2 million-member Episcopal Church in the U.S. and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America are branches of the 77 million-member Anglican Communion, which traces its roots to the Church of England. Anglicans split from Rome in 1534 when English King Henry VIII was refused a marriage annulment. The Convocation of Anglicans says it has 95 congregations and over 250 clergy in more than 30 states and Washington, D.C.
After the Groton parish left the Episcopal denomination, the Connecticut diocese replaced Gauss and removed members of the parish's governing board from their positions. But Gauss and the congregation refused to turn over the church and its property to the diocese, and the legal fight ensued.
Courts in other states in recent years have ruled in similar cases involving parishes that left the Episcopal Church over what they called the church's liberal shift. Rulings this year include:
_The California Supreme Court ruled in May that the St. James Anglican Church in Orange County can continue a seven-year legal fight to keep the parish's beachfront property. The court had said in a preliminary decision in 2009 that the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles held the property rights. Also in 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal by St. James.
_A Pennsylvania appeals court decided in February that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh could keep $20 million in church assets in a dispute with more conservative churches that split from the diocese in 2008.
_ A Texas state district judge in January ordered the Fort Worth bishop and a conservative breakaway group of Episcopalians to surrender all diocesan property to the national church.
In Fairfax County, Va., a judge is deciding, after presiding over a seven-week trial earlier this year, who owns the property of seven congregations that broke from the Episcopal Church in 2006 over what the parishes called liberal church doctrine on homosexuality and other issues.
In June, Canada's Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Episcopal diocese in Vancouver in a dispute with four parishes that sought to keep their properties after leaving the diocese in 2008.