Monday, January 5, 2009

Victory for the Episcopal Church

The Supreme Court of California has just issued its opinion, granting ownership of disputed church property to the Episcopal Church. The court's opinion can be found here - scroll down to the lower half of the page to find the opinion.

California Supreme Court Opinions

This is a major victory for those of us who believe that you can't build a church for years under the name "Episcopal Church", using the Episcopal Church's prayer book, hymnal, doctrines, canons, constitution, leadership, Diocesan services and history, and then decide to keep the building and assets when you don't like a decision that the church has made. If I own a McDonald's franchise, and the corporation makes a decision I don't like, I don't get to just change my sign to read "McDonald's West", continue to serve the same food, wear the same uniforms, keep the building and the assets, and discontinue payments to the corporation. The restaurant would not have been able to build its business without that franchise identification. They can't reap the benefits of that identification while disowning the identity itself.

But that's my reasoning, not the court's. The court's decision is simpler: the church's property is held in trust by the Diocese and the national Episcopal Church; that is established in both national and diocesan canons. There's just no way around that ownership.

This will have enormous consequences for our neighbors in Petaluma. A few years ago, St. John's Episcopal Church in Petaluma voted to leave the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California and join a conservative Anglican diocese in a distant country. They renamed themselves "St. John's Anglican Church" and kept control of the property, forcing the Diocese to sue to keep the building and its assets. Those who did not agree with this decision and maintained their identity as Episcopalians had to worship elsewhere - first in a gymnasium, and then in rented space at a friendly local Lutheran church. Now they can return home to their beloved church building. Presumably this will happen very soon, and the litigation will be over.

3 cheers for the Supreme Court and the rule of law!