On July 2, 2019, the Connecticut Superior Court dismissed a lawsuit in which the former Wardens and Vestry members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Darien, Connecticut sought to seize control of the property of St. Paul’s, which they had lost when the 2018 Annual Convention of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut (“ECCT”) voted unanimously to change St. Paul’s from a Parish to a Worshiping Community.
This decision follows the Superior Court’s dismissal, in April, of fraud claims asserted by the former Wardens and Vestry members against the Rev. Canon George I. Kovoor, formerly Rector and now Priest-In-Charge at St. Paul’s.
These dismissals affirm that the Constitution and Canons of the Church govern its member congregations and end the legal efforts by St. Paul’s former Wardens and Vestry members to control St. Paul’s in violation of the Canons.
The dispute over St. Paul’s began when the former Wardens and Vestry members became estranged from Canon Kovoor in late 2017, roughly 12 months after they had called him to serve as their rector. When the former Wardens and Vestry members initiated a canonical process to dissolve the pastoral relation between Canon Kovoor and the Parish, the Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Bishop Diocesan, worked with a team of coaches and consultants for over 18 months to try to reconcile the parties.
Because reconciliation proved elusive, Bishop Douglas announced that he would take the next step under the Canons by issuing a “godly judgment” as to whether Canon Kovoor would remain Rector of St. Paul’s. Without waiting for that judgment, the former Wardens and Vestry members attempted to fire Canon Kovoor and evict him from the rectory, in direct violation of the Canons of the Church. The former Wardens and Vestry members filed suit against Canon Kovoor claiming that he had defrauded them, in an effort to negate his employment agreement. Wanting to protect Canon Kovoor from false charges against his character and professional record, Bishop Douglas and the Episcopal Church joined in the defense of the fraud case.
In October, 2018, the Annual Convention of ECCT took the next step in the process established in the Canons to resolve an irreconcilable conflict between a Parish and its Rector. The Annual Convention voted unanimously to change the status of St. Paul’s, Darien from a Parish to a Worshiping Community. This change placed St. Paul’s under the exclusive supervision, direction, and control of Bishop Douglas and removed the former Wardens and Vestry members from their leadership roles. Bishop Douglas secured the property and appointed Canon Kovoor Priest-in-Charge of the new Worshiping Community of St. Paul’s, Darien.
The former warden and vestry responded by filing a second lawsuit, hoping to seize control of the property of St. Paul’s from ECCT.
In April, the Superior Court dismissed the first case filed by the former Wardens and Vestry members, ruling that considering the accusations of fraud against Canon Kovoor would “entangle the . . . Court . . into matters of religious hiring, religious practices and church polity” in violation of the First Amendment.
In July, the Court dismissed the second case because the former Wardens and Vestry members had failed to allege facts sufficient to invoke the jurisdiction of the Court to try to wrest possession of the property from ECCT. Indeed, the Court highlighted the fact that the former Wardens and Vestry members had themselves alleged that they voluntarily chose not to participate in services at St. Paul’s, noting that they had asserted that they “retained the choice to participate [St. Paul’s] services, but not that they were prevented or dispossessed of their right to do so.”
The dismissal of these cases allows ECCT to focus on discerning what God would want next for the people and the Worshiping Community of St. Paul’s in Darien.
Commenting on the decisions, Bishop Douglas has said: “I thank God that the Court has unilaterally supported the position of the Episcopal Church in Connecticut by dismissing all of the legal claims asserted by the former Wardens and Vestry members of St. Paul’s, Darien. I am also thankful for the faithfulness and hard work of our legal team, Canon Kovoor, and the ECCT consultants and coaches who have labored tirelessly to bring reconciliation and wholeness to this sad circumstance. I pray that these court rulings will allow the people and Worshiping Community of St. Paul’s, Darien to move forward in God’s mission to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.”