Another California Judge Denies Summary Relief to ECUSA (Updated)
[UPDATE 06/14/2013: I can now report that Judge Reed affirmed her tentative ruling at the close of the hearing on ECUSA’s motion this morning. The case now goes to trial, which is scheduled for late July.]
Last month I wrote about the litigation lottery in California, in which a Kern County judge ruled against two Anglican parishes (St. Paul’s in Bakersfield, and St. Michael’s in Ridgecrest) that as a matter of law, their attempt to disaffiliate from ECUSA was invalid, while a Tulare County judge ruled—on the same set of facts—that there were disputed issues about the withdrawal of St. John’s, in Porterville, which would require a full trial. The previous post provides all the background you will need to understand today’s tentative ruling by a second Tulare County judge—this time in favor of St. Paul’s, in Visalia, also denying summary judgment to ECUSA on the same basic set of facts.
Using a formula that is by now well-tested in the California courts, the plaintiffs—Provisional Bishop Talton and his rump diocese—made the same arguments that worked with the judge in Kern County:
Here, Plaintiffs contend the Episcopal Church’s rules do not permit parishes to disaffiliate from the church and, as such the Diocese of San Joaquin and St. Paul’s Parish remain admitted as part of the Episcopal Church despite Defendants’ actions and claim of disaffiliation. Plaintiffs further assert that the members, vestrymen, and rector who claim allegiance to the Anglican Church have disaffiliated themselves (but not the parish) from the Episcopal Church by taking the actions that they did and they have no authority over parish affairs or property. Thus, Plaintiffs allege the transfer of property out of trust for the benefit of the Episcopal Church was without authority and is invalid. As a result, Plaintiffs contend Defendants are now improperly precluding members of the Episcopal Church from exercising control over parish property.
They relied upon the same California cases, too: cases from Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego Counties in which the departing parishes, unlike those in San Joaquin, did not have the permission of their bishop to disaffiliate. But Judge Reed saw through their claim that those cases were dispositive:
In particular, unlike the prior cases, here there is at least a reasonable inference that St. Paul’s Parish received valid permission from the bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin to disaffiliate the parish from the Episcopal Church as permitted by the diocese’s canons. Further, there is sufficient evidence to support Defendants’ contention that after disaffiliation, the vestrymen of the parish retained authority to amend the parish’s corporate articles and bylaws in order to effectively transfer title of parish property to the Anglican Church.
Judge Reed explains the importance of Section 20.01(g) of the Canons of the Diocese of San Joaquin, and for this once, turns the tables on ECUSA by saying that it never objected to that Canon:
As to the issue of the parish’s right to disaffiliate from the church, it is undisputed that Canon XX, section 20.01(g) of the Diocese of San Joaquin has been an adopted canon of the diocese for many years, and that the plain language of section 20.01(g) allows for disaffiliation of the parish upon the written approval of the bishop of the diocese.
Plaintiffs argue that section 20.01(g) is invalid because Episcopal Church rules do not allow for a parish to disaffiliate. They base their contention upon church rules that indicate parish canons may not conflict with church rules and that parish property is to be held in trust for the church. However, the evidence before the court does not show that the Episcopal Church has objected to section 20.01(g) in the past, or taken any action to remove it from the diocese’s canons. Moreover, other church rules appear to give broad authority to bishops, such as Episcopal Church Canon II.6 which authorizes a parish to encumber parish property with consent of the bishop.
After years of hearing courts say that dioceses and parishes never objected to the Dennis Canon before the current disputes arose, this opinion comes as a breath of fresh air, by turning the same point against ECUSA.
Judge Reed goes on to find triable issues of fact with respect to the manner in which Bishop Schofield gave his permission to the parishes, and with regard to the authority of the parish to amend its constitution and bylaws after the disaffiliation took place. Then she administers the coup de grâce to the Plaintiffs’ chief argument:
Lastly, the court disagrees with Plaintiffs that Defendants’ actions were ineffective based solely upon the determination of the Episcopal Church as the highest ecclesiastical authority, and that the matter is now a non-justiciable fact. Clearly, the court is cognizant of the restrictions on civil courts interfering with internal affairs of religious organizations under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution. In resolving property disputes, the court must take care not to adjudicate questions of religious doctrine. (Schofield v. Superior Court (2010) 190 Cal.App.4th 154.)
However, under Schofield the trial court is to resolve a property dispute without reference to church doctrine if it can. In doing so, the court is to apply neutral principals of law which include the First Amendment rights of individuals and corporations; legal principles governing transfer of title; the law of trusts and corporations; general principles of corporate governance; and governing documents of the diocese and church, to the extent such documents establish trust relationships and specify corporate powers. (Schofield v. Superior Court, supra, 190 Cal. App. 4th at p. 163.) Here, given the numerous material issues and facts in dispute, it is apparent that resolution of the parties’ property dispute must be resolved at trial after considering the applicable documents, and not based solely upon the Episcopal Church’s determination.
This point is a huge one in favor of the Anglican diocese and its parishes. Ever since the Fifth District Court of Appeal handed down its decision in the Schofield case, ECUSA and its attorneys have been trying to make much of a single sentence in that opinion, when the Court stated: “The continuity of the diocese as an entity within the Episcopal Church is likewise a matter of ecclesiastical law, finally resolved, for civil law purposes, by the Episcopal church’s recognition of Lamb as the bishop of that continuing entity.” (Emphasis added.)
The technique of ECUSA’s attorneys has been to try to get California judges to read that highlighted phrase as though it said: “as a civil entity under California law”—i.e., to buy into the sham that the rump diocese is still the same legal entity under California law that voted to amend its Constitution in December 2007 and thus withdraw from the Episcopal Church (USA).
But that is not what the Court wrote. In fact it was responding to one of our arguments on behalf of Bishop Schofield, namely, that the rump diocese lacked the right to claim it was a genuine diocese of ECUSA, because it had not properly noticed its organizing convention, and because General Convention had never formally admitted it into union. Thus what the Court said was: “ECUSA may, as an ecclesiastical matter, decide to recognize whom it pleases as one of its dioceses, and that determination (of “ecclesiastical law”, not the California civil law) was not open to question or attack in the civil courts.”
And that is just how the Fresno Superior Court read the Schofield decision when it denied ECUSA’s second motion for summary judgment last month. Thus we now have the weight of a second California superior court judge behind the correct reading, which will not hurt Bishop Schofield one bit.
Finally, we should hear any day now from the Court of Appeal itself. Refusing to accept the decision of the Fresno trial court, ECUSA and its rump diocese filed a petition with the appellate court in which they asked it to say what it meant, and set the trial court straight. If, as usually happens in such interlocutory matters, the appellate court declines to interfere, and allows the case to go to trial first, then ECUSA will just have to wait until the eventual (and inevitable) appeal to see if it is reading the Schofield decision correctly or not.
Back in Visalia, we shall have to await the oral arguments tomorrow morning before Judge Reed to see whether or not she makes this tentative ruling her final one. I will report an update here when I have one.
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