Wednesday, December 16, 2009

St. Luke's Petitions for Certiorari

This announcement was just received from St. Luke's Anglican Church. What makes it significant is that unlike the earlier petition filed by St. James Newport Beach, this petition has been taken from a judgment that is final under California law. Thus there will not exist any reason to wait until there is a final judgment, as may have motivated some Justices not to vote to grant certiorari in the earlier case:


LA CRESCENTA, Calif. – December 16, 2009 – St. Luke’s Anglican Church today filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States asking the Court to decide whether California courts violated the United States Constitution by conferring on The Episcopal Church and its Diocese in Los Angeles a special power – not available to nonreligious persons or nondenominational churches – to seize its property and take over its corporation based on its religious affiliation.

Even though St. Luke’s owned its property “free of any trust” for decades, and is a California nonprofit religious corporation governed by a board of directors and its members, the decision of the California courts has forced the St. Luke’s congregation off their property when they exercised their religious freedom and conscience to affiliate with another branch of the Anglican church. The petition asks the Supreme Court to decide whether, under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, certain religious denominations can disregard the normal rules of property ownership and corporate law that apply to everyone else.

Dr. John Eastman, a nationally recognized constitutional law scholar, has joined the legal team to pursue the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. “We will be arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that California’s interpretation of state law has violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Even though it says Congress, that Amendment has been interpreted as applicable to the states as well.” Eastman said. “The California courts are giving preferences to certain kinds of churches that claim to be hierarchical, that other churches and non-religious associations are not entitled to, and that violates the establishment clause. We will also be arguing that by denying the local church community their ability to organize and hold title to their own building and conduct their religious services in the manner they see fit, California has not respected their right to the free exercise of religion,” Eastman added.

Under longstanding law, no one can unilaterally impose a trust over someone else’s property without their permission. Some California courts have ruled that certain denominations – those that claim to be a “superior religious body or general church” – can unilaterally impose a trust on the property of spiritually affiliated but separately incorporated local churches, resulting in the local church forfeiting its property if it ever chooses to leave the denomination. St. Luke’s will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that this preferential treatment for certain denominations violates the U.S. Constitution.

Eric C. Sohlgren, attorney for St. Luke’s, said, “It has been thirty years since the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken about church disputes like this, and since that time, the law in various states has become hopelessly confused while our nation’s religious diversity has exploded. Unlike California’s decision to throw the people of St. Luke’s out of their property and corporation based on a denomination’s wishes, had this dispute arisen in another state, the result could have been completely different. A person’s First Amendment rights shouldn’t turn on their state of residence, and we need the U.S. Supreme Court to definitely decide this important issue of constitutional law for the nation.”

The constitutional issues St. Luke’s is raising before the U.S. Supreme Court go far beyond the Episcopal Church. Every local church, temple, synagogue, parish, spiritual center, congregation or religious group which owns its own property through a religious corporation, and has some affiliation with a larger religious group, is now at risk of losing its own property in California. As a result, religious freedom is suppressed, as those who have sacrificed to build their local religious communities are now at risk of having their properties taken based on some past, current or future spiritual affiliation. A United States Supreme Court decision in favor of St. Luke’s would benefit local church property owners throughout the country because it would allow them the ability to freely exercise their religion without risk of losing their property.

The people of St. Luke’s Anglican Church have owned, and sacrificed to build and acquire their church properties for many decades without any financial support from the Episcopal Church. St. Luke’s Anglican Church never agreed to relinquish its property to the Episcopal Church upon a change of religious affiliation to another part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and has consistently maintained that it has the right to use and possess its own property.

Even as St. Luke’s seeks a place on the Supreme Court calendar, the church’s legal battle resulted in the congregation being evicted from their property on October 12, 2009. The people of St. Luke’s are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to protect their rights and those of other congregations. They believe no religious group should be evicted from their property when as a matter of conscience they are trying to preserve the faith traditions that have been handed down to them through the ages.

Click here for a copy of the writ of certiorari filed today with the U.S. Supreme Court.


  1. Will the property be protected from disposal or encumbrance by Dio L.A. while we wait?

  2. Extremely well stated.....the very essence of the situation.

    May all who read it take it truly to heart.

  3. Rolin,

    IIRC, the Anglican congregation has already vacated.

  4. That is correct, Jeff, and the ownership has reverted either to the diocese or to the zombie congregation that is the proxy of the diocese. Now the diocese could choose to sell the property, or to heavily mortgage it to make it a 'poison pill'. My question was whether the Anglican congregation had any protection against adverse actions such as these against the property.

  5. Okay, sounds good to me, but what are the odds the Supreme Court will hear the case?

  6. Rolin, there is no protection against what the Diocese of LA could do with the property pending the application for certiorari. The odds of its being granted are only slightly greater than they were for the petition filed by St. James, Newport Beach, because the judgment against St. Luke's is already final, as I noted. Today would be the last day for any party to file for certiorari from the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court filed on September 18. If ECUSA or members of the losing congregation choose to do so, the Supreme Court will be confronted with two opposing State decisions on the same point, and the odds of their accepting both to resolve the dispute would increase greatly.

    That being said, I do not think the Dio of LA would be able to sell the property in the current market before we see whether the Supreme Court acts. If it were to do so after certiorari was granted (if it does get granted), it would be extremely foolish, because it would be liable to St. Luke's, if the California court's decision is reversed, for the full value of the property. Same result if it mortgages the property in the interim: it would have to return the property to St. Luke's free and clear, or pay it the full value of the property.