Wednesday, June 24, 2009

St. James Petitions for Review in Supreme Court

The parish of St. James in Newport Beach has filed its petition for certiorari (review) with the United States Supreme Court. The petition may be downloaded as an Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) file from this site.

I am in the process of doing a series of posts on the various Church property law cases, which will help to understand the background of, and the basis for, this petition. (The first such post is here; the second will be along this weekend.) For now, here is a brief summary, starting first with the "Questions Presented" --- the matters which St. James would like the Supreme Court to agree to review and decide, as a matter of federal Constitutional law:

1. Whether the California Supreme Court violated the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses by interpreting a state statute to confer a special power on certain religious denominations to create trusts for their own benefit in the real property of affiliated local church corporations, solely by declaring that they have unilaterally enacted a post-hoc internal rule, when no other person or entity has such a power under state law?

2. Whether this Court’s reference in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), to denominational canons and constitutions as potential sources of neutral principles of property law can be read, consistently with the First Amendment, as trumping other secular laws governing property rights?
These two questions present squarely the issue I identified as constituting the major problem with the California Supreme Court's decision in The Episcopal Church Cases this past January, as I discussed in this post. (You may also want to read this post for some additional background; it has links to still more.)

The introductory statement to the Petition explains what it is all about:

Since 1950, Petitioner The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California (“St. James Church”), a separate nonprofit religious corporation under California law, has held clear title to church property in Newport Beach, California. Following a series of doctrinal disputes with the Episcopal Church and its diocese in Los Angeles, California (Respondents here, collectively “Episcopal Church”), the branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion of churches with which St. James Church was originally affiliated, St. James Church voted to affiliate with a different branch of the Anglican Communion. The Los Angeles Diocese sued to take St. James Church’s property. Although the deeds are unambiguously held in the name of the St. James Church corporate entity, the Episcopal Church claim the property by virtue of a disputed 1979 amendment to the Canons of the Episcopal Church (alleged by the Episcopal Church to have been adopted thirty years after St. James Church first took clear title to the property), by which the broader Church association unilaterally claimed for itself a trust interest in the property of St. James Church.

While ostensibly applying the neutral principles of law approach commended by this Court in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), the California Supreme Court interpreted Section 9142(c) of the California Corporations Code to permit churches claiming to be hierarchical to unilaterally create a trust interest for their own benefit in property in which legal title is held by an affiliated local church corporation, thus giving dispositive and retroactive weight to the disputed 1979 Canon while disregarding other neutral principles including deeds and property statutes.

The issues thus presented by this petition involve whether the California Court’s application of Jones and its interpretation of Section 9142(c) impermissibly prefer self-proclaimed hierarchical denominations to other churches and intrude into areas of religious doctrine and polity in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise clauses. The important constitutional issues involved include (1) whether civil courts may, consistent with the First Amendment, decide that a religion is purely hierarchical where the matter is theologically disputed; and (2) whether such an ecclesiastical determination can be permitted to allow the purported hierarchical denomination to adopt, unilaterally, post-hoc rules creating a trust interest for itself, trumping undisputed legal title held by the local religious corporation.
The heart of the brief is in the section entitled "Reasons for Granting the Writ" (beginning on page 12). This is where counsel explains why the Supreme Court should select this one petition for review out of the thousands and thousands of such petitions presented annually to it. (I am not up on its recent statistics, but traditionally the number of such petitions which the Court has time to accept for consideration and a full opinion is less than 100 per year. So counsel in this section has to give it his best shot.) Here is the brief's summary of the first reason for agreeing to review the California Supreme Court's decision:

I. The California Supreme Court Has, By “Legislative Fiat,” Empowered Self-Proclaimed Hierarchical Churches to Unilaterally Create Trust Interests For Themselves in the Property of Affiliated Local Church Corporations, Impermissibly Preferring Hierarchical Religion and Infringing on the Free Exercise Rights of Local Congregations.
In a sense, the argument here is the converse of the argument which the Episcopal Church (USA) is making to the Virginia Supreme Court as a reason to accept review of Judge Bellows' decisions and rulings in the Episcopal Church cases in that State. There, ECUSA contends that the Virginia Division Statute unconstitutionally infringes on its hierarchical polity, by giving local congregations the ability to withdraw and keep their own local property. In California, on the other hand, St. James is saying that the Supreme Court unnecessarily read the California statute (Corporations Code section 9142[c]) so as to allow hierarchical churches --- and no one else --- the exclusive privilege of bypassing the Statute of Frauds in creating a trust on local church property.

The second ground for review (beginning on page 16 of the brief) is in two parts, and is best discussed after I have put up my post on the meaning and proper interpretation of the decision in the Jones v. Wolf case, on which this argument turns. Essentially, St. James argues that the California Supreme Court used the Church's Dennis Canon in such a way as to undermine the "neutral principles" approach, and also has purported to decide disputed matters of religious doctrine (e.g., is the Episcopal Church [USA] "hierarchical"?) in a way that contravenes the First Amendment. (Remember --- the California Supreme Court did not so much decide ECUSA was hierarchical after a trial, as proclaim it "hierarchical" based solely on the allegations it and the Diocese of Los Angeles made in their complaint. There still is going to be a trial in Orange County Superior Court, and the degree to which St. James will be able to contest this point by offering actual evidence, instead of deciding the matter purely on one-sided allegations, is one of the battlegrounds in the case that will be the most hotly contested.)

Stay tuned for a lot more on all these issues as I work my way through the intricacies of the current state of church property law. By reading this blog, you will be able to stay as well-informed as anybody. In the meantime, let me refer you to the excellent series of brief video interviews with Dean Eastman (one of the authors of the petition for certiorari) which you can watch at the Steadfast in Faith site. (Also note that one of the co-authors on the petition, along with the trial counsel Payne & Fears, is Edwin Meese III, the 75th Attorney General of the United States.)

Much more to follow!

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