Episcopal parties file petition for review by U.S. Supreme Court

Posted Jun 20, 2014

[Episcopal Diocese of Forth Worth press release] On June 19, 2014, The Episcopal Church and loyal Episcopal parties and congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court. A copy of the petition is here.

The Fort Worth parties were joined in the filing by the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas and the officials from the continuing Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo. Both dioceses have suffered from breakaway factions that swore to uphold The Episcopal Church before breaking ties and claiming to take historic Episcopal names, churches, and property with them. Episcopal parties in both dioceses won summary judgments from the trial courts under 100 years of Texas law, before the Texas Supreme Court changed the rules of the game and undid decades-old intrachurch arrangements. Both Episcopal parties have now been locked out of their historic houses of worship for half a decade.

The Episcopal Parties have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review these August 30, 2013, decisions of the Texas Supreme Court. A statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas on the Good Shepherd opinion is here, and a statement of from the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth on the Texas Supreme Court opinion is here. In those decisions, the Texas Supreme Court retroactively changed more than 100 years of Texas precedent to substitute a “neutral principles” test for the “deference” test in church property disputes; the court also held that the Church’s Dennis Canon, a trust canon enacted at the U.S. Supreme Court’s instruction in 1979, was “not good enough under Texas law.”

The petition asks the U.S. Supreme Court to address three federal constitutional questions:

1. Whether the First Amendment or Jones v. Wolf requires courts to enforce express trusts recited in general-church governing documents (as some jurisdictions hold), or whether such a trust is enforceable only when it would otherwise comply with state law (as others hold).

2. Whether retroactive application of the neutral-principles approach infringes free-exercise rights.

3. Whether the neutral-principles approach endorsed in Jones remains a constitutionally viable means of resolving church-property disputes, especially in light of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide whether to review these questions when it resumes its new term on October 6, 2014. If review is granted, the parties will file briefs and give oral argument, with a decision possible by the end of the term in June 2015.

The Episcopal parties’ legal counsel are joined by U.S. Supreme Court practitioners Neal Katyal with Hogan Lovells US, LLP and John P. Elwood with Vinson & Elkins, LLP.

The Rt. Rev. Rayford B. High, Jr., bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, said, “This request for review by the U.S. Supreme Court is but one of many pieces necessary to our work to resolve this dispute that has disrupted the Episcopal community in this diocese. We remain confident that eventually we will recover the exclusive rights to use our historic names and properties for the mission and ministry of The Episcopal Church. As we continue to pray for the breakaway members who left our worship communities, we also continue to delight in the many new ways that God is using us and The Episcopal Church to bring spiritual renewal to this area of Texas.”

In related news, the remand of the case to the 141st District Court in Tarrant County continues even as the parties seek Supreme Court review. The Honorable Judge John P. Chupp entered a scheduling order that includes pleading and discovery deadlines and sets the hearing on motions for summary judgment for December 17, 2014. A copy of the docket control order is here. At the Court’s urging, the breakaway groups committed on the record and in sworn discovery responses that they would not sell or encumber any disputed church property until the resolution of this case without first notifying the Episcopal parties and seeking approval from the Court.


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Comments (6)

  1. ron davin says:

    How does this figure in ?

    Don’t you know that God’s people will judge the world? And if you are going to judge the world, aren’t you able to judge small cases? 3 Don’t you know that we will judge angels? Then we should be able to judge the things of this life even more!

    4 So if you want to press charges in matters like that, appoint as judges members of the church who aren’t very important! 5 I say this to shame you. Is it possible that no one among you is wise enough to judge matters between believers? 6 Instead, one believer goes to court against another. And this happens in front of unbelievers!

    7 The very fact that you take another believer to court means you have lost the battle already. Why not be treated wrongly? Why not be cheated? 8 Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong. And you do it to your brothers and sisters.

  2. Tobias Haller says:

    Two things: in this case those who have left TEC have rejected the judgment of the leaders of TEC elected to settle such matters. They do not accept the decisions of the General Convention.
    Second: it seems to me the man who wrote those words had second thoughts about it when it concerned himself and ultimately appealed to the emperor to settle his case.

  3. BRADLEY HUTT says:

    TEC insists on resolving this dispute in secular court despite it being a violation of their own canons. These disputes need to be settled peacefully within the Church. Shame on all.

    1. TEC has the means and process to resolving this dispute without going to secular courts. Those ordained in the Episcopal Church have pledged obedience to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church. People elected to Vestries have a fiduciary responsibility to the Episcopal Church, as constituted under our Constitution and Canons and governed by the General Convention. If you no longer want to be obedient to the doctrine and discipline of the Episcopal Church or to exercise your fiduciary duty to our church, you can’t take the church’s property. Bishop Iker and others abandoning those vows won’t play by the rules to which they earlier pledged obedience – so where else do we go but to the secular courts. I believe that in any other non-profit organization if members renounce their allegiance to the non-profits goals and rules and then want to take the organizations bank accounts, computers and name with them, they would be laughed out of court.

  4. Kenneth Knapp says:

    I can’t help but thinking that on both sides, at the of the day it is all about the money.

  5. For the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth the issue is one of stewardship. This legal action was taken to protect the legacy of generations of Episcopalians in North Texas who gave money to build churches, camps, and schools to be used for the mission and ministry of The Episcopal Church. Episcopal Church properties are not “owned” by those who currently occupy them but are held in trust for the use of Episcopalians in generations to come. When people leave The Episcopal Church, they do not get to claim ownership of Episcopal Church property.

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