Saturday, December 31, 2011

The 2011 Highlights in Church Legal News

This blog's principal focus is tracking the vicissitudes and adventures of the Episcopal Church (USA) in the secular courts, as it engages in an unprecedented campaign of "intimidation by lawsuit" against the dioceses and parishes who have reached the limits of their tolerance with the national Church's leadership in general, and with its individual bishops in particular. For -- make no mistake -- it is the collected bishops of the Episcopal Church who are enabling the Presiding Bishop and her personal Chancellor to bring more than seventy-five separate lawsuits across the country, each of which seeks to seize real and personal property from dissenting congregations and dioceses who have dared to disaffiliate from the national Church. The latest figures available online run only through July, but after just those seven months, the Church's budget item for litigation was already more than two-thirds spent, and once again seems certain to be exceeded significantly by the time year-end figures are released.

Because ECUSA's House of Bishops chooses not to rein in its presiding officer, and because not even General Convention will place real or effective limits on her budget for lawsuits, the guiding words for the denomination have been replaced sub silentio: it is no longer "the Episcopal Church welcomes you," but rather "the Episcopal Church sues you" -- if you dare to disagree with its Presiding Bishop.
She takes it as her personal mission to fight over every Episcopal altar cloth, chalice, prayer book, hymnal, and pulpit, as well as every square inch of real estate and every penny contributed by faithful parishioners. She does so on the theory that as the Church's main "fiduciary", she owes it to Episcopalians everywhere to see that no dastardly dissenter keeps one scrap of "Episcopal Church property" without a court decision allowing them to do so.

This officially pugnacious policy, pursued relentlessly at the highest level as long as the House of Bishops continues to stand by and do nothing to curb it, has led to an unholy, and decidedly un-Christian, collection of legal precedents in various state and federal courts. If anything may be concluded from their pitiful attempts to wrestle with (or, more frequently, studiously to ignore) the canonical infelicities of the Dennis Canon, and similarly ill-conceived and crudely expressed attempts by the national Church to keep dissenters in line, it is that the secular courts are largely unsuited to the tasks which ECUSA's litigation program has put before them.

First of all, having mistakenly convinced themselves during "the Enlightenment" that civil courts have absolutely no ties to their predecessors in the medieval Church, their modern counterparts have proved themselves spectacularly ill-equipped to decide church property cases in accordance with actual "neutral principles of law." The paradox is that the approach using "neutral principles" is based wholly in the secular reasoning of the Enlightenment, but in church cases those same "enlightened" courts largely decline to honor such principles, and choose instead to defer to phony notions of religious authority and hierarchy. There are some notable exceptions now and then, but those exceptions largely serve to prove the wisdom of St. Paul's admonition to Christians to settle their disputes outside of the secular courts.

Herewith, then, from a specifically canonical point of view, follows a chronological summary of the ups and downs of the Episcopal Church (USA) in 2011, with links to the posts that discuss the desultory details:

January - Judge Chupp grants summary judgment to ECUSA in the Ft. Worth litigation. He essentially punts the thorny issues to the higher courts, by adopting holus bolus ECUSA's ancient view of Texas law in the nineteenth century favoring so-called "hierarchical" churches, and by avoiding any analysis of the case under truly neutral principles of property law applicable to all other Texas landowners.

February - In Pennsylvania's Commonwealth Court, the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh loses its appeal of Judge James's nonsensical decision below, due to the appellate judges' studied refusal to let the disturbing facts perturb them in the slightest. One of the Diocese's parishes, St. Philip's in Moon Township, settles separately with the victors by agreeing to stay away from ACNA for five years.

March - The new Episcopal Bishop of San Joaquin, the Rt. Rev. Chester Talton, freely admits in an interview that the object of all the lawsuits recently filed by his predecessor is to get properties to sell so loans from ECUSA to pay for litigation expenses can be repaid. Never mind that the properties in all likelihood will fetch far less than what has to be spent to win them; it's the principle of the thing, don't you see?

April - the Episcopal Diocese of Rio Grande, having evicted the congregation of St. Francis-on-the-Hill (El Paso) from its property, now sues their rector and vestry for all moneys they collected from their parishioners while the earlier litigation was going on. The Diocese also seeks punitive damages against the defendants for their outrageous effrontery in spending the parish pledges for non-Episcopal purposes, such as utilities, church bulletins, soup kitchens, and the like.

May - the California Supreme Court reverses the judgment against St. James, Newport Beach which the Court of Appeal, in an unpublished decision, had given to ECUSA and the Diocese of Los Angeles at their request, because they read the Supreme Court's earlier decision to say that churches which try to leave ECUSA's clutches should not be given even one day in court to plead their case, and deserve to have their property taken from them on the spot. The Supreme Court in effect said: "We were just kidding -- can't you Episcopalians tell the difference between a joke and a legal opinion?"

June - News emerges that when Katharine Jefferts Schori was the Bishop of Nevada, she received a former Catholic monk, an admitted molester of young males, as an Episcopal priest. Of course, she placed him under restrictions meant to ensure that he could not be alone with young men, but apparently she forgot to tell anyone about them, including the rector of the church which hired him to direct its choir.

July - The new Title IV Disciplinary Canons, which were not closely examined or debated until after General Convention approved them, become effective in all church Dioceses except South Carolina, which refuses to recognize them. The Diocese points out numerous ways in which they violate the Church's Constitution -- not least because they confer metropolitical powers upon the Presiding Bishop -- but all the rest of the frogs in the Episcopal soup just lie back, relax, and bask in the steadily increasing warmth that surrounds them.

August - At the request of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, a trial court judge orders the removal of the pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rosemont, outside of Philadephia. The rector, David Moyer, had in the meantime become a bishop in the Traditional Anglican Communion, and now appears to be headed for the new Roman Catholic ordinariate in America.

September - The Connecticut Supreme Court graces the legal world with another poorly written opinion blindly upholding the Dennis Canon's unilaterally created trust under so-called "neutral principles of law." This time, the victim of such misguided reasoning is Bishop Seabury Church, in Groton, but it may appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court if the churches in Georgia do so also (see December entry, below).

October - The new Disciplinary Board for Bishops (under the new Title IV Canons -- see the entry for July above) makes a big splash, and provokes a Church constitutional crisis, when they inform Bishop Mark Lawrence of South Carolina that they are investigating charges made against him by anonymous dissidents in his Diocese for not being sufficiently submissive to the Presiding Bishop's new regime, and for otherwise "abandoning the communion of [ECUSA]." Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese do not recognize either the Board or the new Title IV Canons under which it is operating. After some initially clumsy fumbles in the public relations department, the Board finally announces that it could not muster a majority in favor of certifying the charges, and the crisis evaporates (for now).

November - On the same day, the Georgia Supreme Court decides two major church property cases. In the first, it awards to the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia the property of Christ Church in Savannah, Georgia's oldest Anglican church, which predates the founding of ECUSA itself. In the second decision,  the Court awards the property of Timberridge Presbytery, near Atlanta, to PCUSA. The same Justice -- a prominent member of a large ECUSA parish in Atlanta -- writes the opinions in both cases, without recusing himself from the first one on account of his affiliation. He justifies his upholding of the Dennis Canon against Christ Church by repeatedly citing his tortured decision that rejects Timberridge's attempt to remove itself from the shackles of a similar provision in PCUSA's Book of Order.

December - The Supreme Court of Texas agrees to hear the appeal of the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo from a lower court decision which made mincemeat of "neutral principles of law." This bodes well for Bishop Iker and his Diocese of Fort Worth, which has a similar request for review of Judge Chupp's decision (see January entry above) pending before Texas' highest court. Meanwhile, in Georgia, Timberridge Presbytery announces it will petition the U. S. Supreme Court to review the Georgia Supreme Court's November decision against it (see entry above). There is a possibility that Christ Church in Savannah, whose congregation holds its last service there, will also request review; and that may encourage a third request from Bishop Seabury parish, in Connecticut (see September entry above). Finally, the year closes with an intelligent trial court decision from Illinois which refuses to rule, as a matter of law, that ECUSA is "hierarchical" with respect to its member dioceses.

Happy New Year to one and all! Your Curmudgeon is praying that 2012 will bring good news for all but Jefferts-Schorians on the legal fronts in Fort Worth, San Joaquin and Quincy, and with regard to any petitions filed with the United States Supreme Court.


  1. "She takes it as her personal mission to fight over every Episcopal altar cloth, chalice, prayer book, hymnal, and pulpit, as well as every square inch of real estate and every penny contributed by faithful parishioners."

    But not the Bibles in the pews. When Christ Church Anglican was kicked out of its building, the faux church told us that they didn't WANT the Bibles, and that we could have them.

    Yes. This is not a misprint.

  2. ACK, You mean there are actually Bibles in the pews! Totally weird. They wanted everything except the Bibles. Only one word is appropriate- Episcopagans!

    SC Blu Cat Lady

  3. I don't normally self-promote, but given the proprietor's observation that "the guiding words for the denomination have been replaced sub silentio: it is no longer "the Episcopal Church welcomes you," but rather "the Episcopal Church sues you" -- if you dare to disagree with its Presiding Bishop," I feel it's only appropriate to point out that I've made some decals suitable for mounting on vehicles or elsewhere expressing this very sentiment.

    They're available here in both white and clear versions, and are offered essentially at cost.

    Mr. Haley, if you'd prefer to delete this link, I've got no objection. I just thought folks might be interested in voicing their opposition to these abusive lawsuits.

  4. JeffH, thank you for the link -- I think it helps illustrate the story. Indeed, I could include a graphic of your sticker in the main body of the post, if you want to authorize it by email. If I can figure out a way to link from the graphic, I will.