To illustrate my point, I cannot do better than to quote from this article published by (the real) ENS. (This time, folks, I tell you in advance: what follows is not a parody, but the real thing.) Let's begin at the beginning:
[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.
This is straightforward enough -- except note the propagandistic use of the words "broke away" to describe the action of St. James Parish in realigning itself with a more orthodox branch of the Anglican Communion. (Greg Griffith commented on this very point yesterday over at StandFirm.) Right away, this is a signal that we are in for some considerable spin.
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.This is a rather stilted way of describing the Court's action. The Court's denial of certiorari in some cases would mean that a convicted criminal goes to his execution: would you think to describe that decision as simply a "procedural [matter] . . . affecting the agenda for the term"? At least the reporter notes that the order was made "without comment" in "a 91-page list". But watch how quickly those facts are forgotten in what follows.
The breakaway congregation [there's that word again] 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.Now we are getting positively quaint. The description of what the California Supreme Court decided, and what the petition actually requested, are so far off the mark that it would be as though one were to have described the infamous Dred Scott decision as follows: "the breakaway slave and his family had asked the court to overturn a May decision by the Missouri Circuit Court that they were held in trust for the Emerson estate and the family of which it was a part. The petition to the court asked it to decide whether, under the U.S. Constitution, certain rules of property ownership must yield to the statutes of Northern free states."
As we shall see in the very next paragraphs, however, the group at 815 and around the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno actually do believe that the California Supreme Court made the decision which the above paragraph ascribes to it. Let us for the moment carry on:
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 Presiding Bishop is "pleased with the ruling" -- but there was no "ruling" in the sense of a ruling on the merits of the case, with which one might be pleased or displeased. There was only a decision not to take a look at the case at this time. The "ruling", as such, says nothing either about the Court's views on the California decision itself, or about whether it might be inclined to look at the case when there is a final judgment.
"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."
The same goes for the supposed "insight" shown in "declining to hear the case" along with some 1600 others. (Note to Bishop Bruno: unless a Justice specifically chose to raise the case in the "long conference" of Tuesday, September 29, the case would not even have been discussed. How does he think the Court managed to work its way through 1600 petitions for review in a single day?) The decision emphatically does not "follow the strong and comprehensive opinions" of the two California courts, because it decides nothing; nor were those decisions either "strong" or "comprehensive", as we shall see. (And if by "follows" Bishop Bruno meant only to say "comes after", then he might as well have said "the day follows the night", for all the substantive content delivered in such an assertion.) All that really happened yesterday is that the Church dodged a bullet; there is much more still to come.
"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."The innocent juxtaposition of these two paragraphs is simply stunning in its cluelessness to what is going on. The Episcopal Church is described as "welcoming people who hold a diversity of opinion" even though the next paragraph declares the Church's intention of asking for a final judgment in the case without ever filing a substantive motion or holding a trial. I am dumbfounded by such manifest self-contradiction, and such self-denial.
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."So the Parish of St. James, at least, expects to receive due process in the form of a trial on the merits.
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."They sought to retain the Newport Beach property"? To revert to my Dred Scott analogy, wouldn't that be like saying: "Dred Scott and his family sought to retain their freedom"? (We should be thankful, at least, for the reporter's use of the word "realign".)
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.
And this last paragraph contains the biggest untruths of all -- again, the views expressed are simply stunning in their cluelessness, if they really do express the view of 815, of Bishop Bruno and of their respective attorneys. Let me set things straight:
1. What Judge David Velasquez held was that, under California law at the time, neither the Episcopal Church nor the Diocese of Los Angeles had pled facts in their complaints sufficient to establish any claim to have an interest in the Parish property which the law could recognize. In other words, he upheld the traditional California Statute of Frauds, which requires that for a trust to be declared in any real property, the owner of that property (the Parish, in this case) must have signed a declaration of trust in writing to that effect. Since there was no allegation that the Parish had signed any such document, the claims by the Church and the Diocese to have such an interest were inadequate under existing law.
2. The Court of Appeal did reverse Judge Velasquez's decision, but it did so by overturning years of California precedent, and by claiming (wrongly, yet not incorrectly, as I will explain in a moment) that California courts had departed without authority from the traditional "deference" required to be shown to "hierarchical" churches. Its reversal meant only that the case could go back to Judge Velasquez and the complaints considered as stating a sufficient claim to an interest in the property, which the defendant Parish would now have to answer.
3. The Supreme Court of California did affirm the reversals by the Court of Appeals, but in doing so said the Court of Appeals had been wrong to adopt the "deferential" approach, because California, it held, follows "neutral principles of law" in deciding church property disputes -- exactly as Judge Velasquez had decided. Then, however, the Court immediately performed a 180-degree turn and, while giving lip service to "neutral principles", proceeded to defer to the Episcopal Church (USA)'s unilateral declaration of a trust by means of the Dennis Canon, and to allow that Canon to trump the State's own Statute of Frauds. In the case of a "hierarchical" church like the Episcopal Church (USA), it held, a national canon allegedly passed by General Convention was superior to a law passed by the California State legislature -- because it read another statute as delegating to General Convention the authority to override the Statute of Frauds.
4. In both cases, the decisions of the California appellate courts were not final rulings. They simply held that the complaints stated claims which the law could recognize, if the facts were proved to be as alleged. Thus the burden is still on the Diocese and the Church (a) to prove that the Dennis Canon was legally enacted, and (b) that the Diocese did not waive it in the case of St. James. (See my previous post, and the comment of the Parish's attorney, Eric Sohlgren, for details on this point. I also quoted a passage from the Church's brief in opposition in the Supreme Court to show it really thinks the California Supreme Court's decision ended the case -- when it most certainly did not. That Court's decision was a legal embarrassment in that regard, as I explained in this post, and it continues to be an embarrassment to my profession that there are highly-paid members of it who maintain that cases can be decided in such a summary fashion.)
As I said in my title, the Episcoleft is in La-La Land.