The Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno has just issued an eleven-page opinion in which it grants the petition for review filed by Bishop John-David Schofield from the July 21, 2009 order of the trial court granting ECUSA's and Bishop Lamb's motion for summary adjudication. The appellate court has ordered the trial court to vacate (erase) its previous order, and to deny the plaintiffs' motion.
The ground upon which the reversal is ordered is that the case as presented by the plaintiffs Lamb and ECUSA in their first cause of action is not properly decidable by the secular courts without their becoming too entangled in First Amendment issues, such as who is the proper Bishop of San Joaquin. It holds that ECUSA's recognition of Bishop Lamb is conclusive as to his position as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, and to the continuity of that entity "for ecclesiastical purposes", but it goes on to hold that the validity of the transfers of title to diocesan property by Bishop Schofield while he was still the Episcopal Bishop will have to be decided upon neutral principles of state corporate law, and also any relevant governing documents of the Diocese and the national Church.
This decision therefore will require ECUSA to prove through its documents that there is a trust in its favor on all diocesan church property for it to succeed in its claims to diocesan assets. And since the Dennis Canon expressly applies only to parish property, and not to any property of a diocese, the element of proof required in the national governing instruments is lacking. (The word "hierarchical" does not appear in the Court's opinion.)
However, this is just a first quick reading of the decision, which may be downloaded from this (temporary) link. I will have more to say about the decision in a later post.