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Appeals court favors Episcopal Church, diocese in Los Angeles property cases


California court overturns lower court’s rulings.

A California Court of Appeal has ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Los Angeles in cases where the majority of members of three Episcopal congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church for oversight by bishops in another Anglican province.

The decision, which overturns rulings by a lower court, comes in the first of the recent cases brought to recover Episcopal Church property retained by congregations now calling themselves St. James Anglican Church, Newport Beach; All Saints’ Anglican Church, Long Beach; and St. David’s Anglican Church, North Hollywood. The congregations voted in August 2004 to amend their articles of incorporation, and maintain that they are now part of the Anglican Province of Uganda.

The trial court had ruled in favor of the departing congregations in August 2005. But the Fourth District Court of Appeal, in an exhaustive 77-page review of U.S. Supreme Court and California appellate decisions as well as a pertinent California statute, held that where a hierarchical church -- such as the Episcopal Church -- has determined that the real and personal property of subordinate bodies must be used and maintained for the benefit of the larger church, the courts in California must respect and enforce that determination.

The Court of Appeal found that a “’governing instrument’” of the Episcopal Church -- its 1979 “trust” Canon I.7(4) -- “expressly impresses a trust on the property of a local church corporation” which must be enforced by the courts.

The court held that in these circumstances “the right of the general [i.e., Episcopal] church in this case to enforce a trust on the local parish property is clear” and declined to “bolster the result … by explaining that an alternative rationale [i.e, the ”neutral principles“ analysis adopted by numerous courts] leads to the same result.”

Other California appellate courts had issued conflicting opinions on the central issue involved in the case.

The decision is subject to discretionary review by the California Supreme Court and is not binding on all trial courts in California.

Legal sources say California is the only state where appellate decisions in recent decades have not favored the Episcopal Church.

The case on behalf of the Diocese of Los Angeles was brought by Holme, Roberts and Owen, the law firm of the diocesan chancellor, John R. Shiner, who successfully argued an issue relating to California’s “anti-SLAPP” statute. The Episcopal Church was represented by Goodwin Procter in Washington, D.C., the law firm of David Booth Beers, the Chancellor to the Presiding Bishop. Beers’ partner Heather H. Anderson argued the merits of the appeal.


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