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August 30, 2013


Bishop Iker and Church of the Good Shepherd Win in Texas

Today the Texas Supreme Court handed down decisions in the two ECUSA cases pending before it: No. 11-0265, Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, et al. v. The Episcopal Church, et al.; and No. 11-0332, Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas. In the first case, the Court sided with Bishop Iker’s Diocese by a closely split vote of 5-4, reversed the summary judgment of Circuit Judge John Chupp which had awarded all of the property and assets of Bishop Iker’s Diocese to the Episcopal Church and its rump diocese, and sent the case back to the trial court. The majority held that the trial court had improperly failed to apply a “neutral principles of law” analysis to the issues. The four dissenters did not disagree with that result, but instead believed that the Court lacked jurisdiction to hear a direct appeal from the trial court’s judgment in the case.

In the second case, the Court by a vote of 7-2 reversed the Court of Appeals’ decision requiring the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo to turn over its building and all other assets to the Diocese of Northwest Texas. The Court definitively ruled that all Texas courts must follow “neutral principles of law” (rather than deferring to an ecclesiastical hierarchy), and that based on such an analysis, the Dennis Canon was not effective under Texas law (or that if it were effective to create a trust, the trust was not expressly irrevocable, and so could be revoked by the parish in question).

The two decisions establish “neutral principles of law” as the governing approach to church property disputes in Texas courts. (The Texas Supreme Court had last addressed the issue in 1909, seven decades before the U.S. Supreme Court authorized “neutral principles” in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979).) And under that approach, as we have seen happen time and again more recently, courts are coming to realize that ECUSA’s case has no neutral principles going for it.

ECUSA loses under a true “neutral principles” approach because it ignores the Statute of Frauds in its Dennis Canon, and proclaims a trust on other peoples’ property of which it makes itself the beneficiary. And in the Diocese cases, where ECUSA does not even have the Dennis Canon available to it, it simply waves its hands and claims to have made an “ecclesiastical determination” that its Dioceses cannot withdraw from the denomination unilaterally, and that even if they could, the Diocese impliedly agreed to hold all of its property in trust for the denomination, and so must relinquish control of that property upon leaving.

This latter fact—that there was a trust argument also made in Bishop Iker’s case—explains the unusual divisions among the Justices. The two dissenters in Masterson were Justice Lehrmann and Chief Justice Jefferson. They would have deferred to ECUSA’s determinations even under a “neutral principles” approach, and have declined, based on the First Amendment, to let Texas corporate law overrule those determinations. For them, the Dennis Canon had “ecclesiastical” force, to which the Texas Courts had to defer. (Query: how does such “deference” square with “neutral principles”, when only certain types of denominations qualify for “deference”?)

The four dissenters in Bishop Iker’s case were Justices Willett, Lehrmann, Boyd and Devine. But as I noted, their dissent was to the Court’s taking jurisdiction of the appeal, and not to the merits.

It is Chief Justice Jefferson who made the majority in Bishop Iker’s case—while willing to defer to ECUSA in disputes between a parish and a diocese, he did not see the basis for any such deference as between dioceses and ECUSA—at least, on the record as developed below. Undoubtedly he joined with the majority to send the case back for further proceedings, and would withhold further judgment on the merits until after there has been a full trial and a normal appeal. (He expressly did not join in Parts IV.B and IV.C of the majority’s opinion, which provides guidance for the trial court on certain issues which will be faced at the trial.)

One might think, given this split, that the “guidance” offered in those latter two sections of the majority’s opinion is scarcely guidance at all, because without Chief Justice Jefferson, what is written has the backing of just four of the nine Justices. But that reasoning does not take into account the decision by seven of the Justices in the Masterson case.

In Masterson, the seven justices decided pretty much the same corporate law issues on which the four Justices provide “guidance” in the case of Bishop Iker’s diocese. Thus, Texas law will control the issue of who were the trustees of the Fort Worth diocesan corporation on the relevant dates when crucial votes were taken. And that should bode very well for Bishop Iker’s chances on remand.

Likewise, the issues of title are to be resolved by examining the various deeds under Texas secular law—and that, too, should work in Bishop Iker’s favor. Title to all of the parish properties is held by the diocesan corporation. Thus if Bishop Iker’s trustees are the proper trustees in office, the property will follow the corporation.

I may have more to say after I finish a full review of the opinions, and may change some points noted above, but on the whole, these two decisions score a great victory for neutral principles in general, and for ECUSA dissenters in particular.


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21 comments

I do hope, Alan, that you have more to day.  For a non-attorney, moi, this looks like a big win for Iker, etal. This will be appealed, yes?

[1] Posted by Michael+ on 8-30-2013 at 10:13 AM · [top]

WOW.

This is awesome!

Congratulations to the Diocese of Fort Worth and the Church of the Good Shepherd!

[2] Posted by Sarah on 8-30-2013 at 10:13 AM · [top]

Good news.

[3] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 8-30-2013 at 10:16 AM · [top]

Michael+ (#1), ECUSA could try to apply to the US Supreme Court for a writ, yes, but the odds are that it would not be granted. Neither case is over yet—there is no final judgment. Both cases have been sent back to the trial court for further proceedings. Generally, the Supreme Court will accept only final judgments for review.

[4] Posted by A. S. Haley on 8-30-2013 at 10:23 AM · [top]

This is why if you have the means to fight it out in court, you fight and never give up. You just might, with God’s help, break some revisionist banks.

[5] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 8-30-2013 at 10:32 AM · [top]

This stuff could have been settled all kinds of other ways (maybe best by TEC not rushing off a cliff in its zeal for other gospels). Compounding the spiritual failure of litigation is the way they’ve been awful stewards of money given for mission in the name of Christ and the pyrrhic victory of holding the keys to empty buildings just to say they could. And worst of all the many pewsitters who just won’t get it through their heads that the denomination is being exploited by a non-Christian, dysfunctional and corrupt elite.

[6] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 8-30-2013 at 10:35 AM · [top]

The sound you may have just heard is me breathing a sigh of relief.  I truly hope that this will lead to a good overall outcome.  However, I will save the rejoicing for later since I know that TEC will keep appealing any decision that goes against them until they get the result that they want or they run out of options for appeal. 

I have worshipped in the cathedral in Bedford a couple of time and at St Laurence in South Lake a couple more times.  Each time, my heart just broke for those parishes in peril of having their properties jacked out from under them aided and abetted by the judicial system kow-towing to a church that is only heirarchal when its convenient.  At least that won’t happen here in Texas at least for now.

[7] Posted by StayinAnglican on 8-30-2013 at 11:02 AM · [top]

Praise God from whom all blessings flow!!  Alleluia!!

[8] Posted by Deacon Francie on 8-30-2013 at 11:18 AM · [top]

This Texas voter is now watching the votes of Justices Jefferson and Lehrmann carefully and will vote accordingly.

[9] Posted by Newbie Anglican on 8-30-2013 at 11:24 AM · [top]

With the seeming conflict between the decisions of different state Supreme Courts; i.e., Virginia and California on the one hand, and South Carolina and now Texas on the other, does this increase the probability that SCOTUS may take a case on appeal, like the one from The Falls Church, to settle this issue on a national basis?

[10] Posted by Daniel on 8-30-2013 at 11:27 AM · [top]

If I were SCOTUS I would stay as far away from this case as possible.  They only stand to lose by inserting themselves in this case.

So, it seems the REAL question for the State courts is whether to defer to alleged “ecclesiastical hierarchy” or to apply the neutral principals of law. 

I can really understand and even sympathize why many of the courts have basically “taken a pass” by using alleged “ecclesiastical hierarchy” - basically saying “hot potato, hot potato” and letting the church deal with these matters internally.

I am proud that the great state of Texas used “neutral principals” in order to determine who actually holds the property in trust.  When applied fairly the diocese will win every time, as they have the keys and the title to the property.

[11] Posted by B. Hunter on 8-30-2013 at 11:55 AM · [top]

Thanks be to God.

Both property law and trust law vary somewhat from state to state.  One of the strengths of the US Constitution and legal system is that there is latitude, so long as one stays within constitutional boundaries, for each state to determine its own best policy based on local conditions.  It would be difficult to make a case against the Texas decision, it seems to me, because what the justices determined is that a) consistent with state law, and within guidelines already laid out by US Supreme Court precedent, neutral principals govern property disputes, and b) the statute of frauds applies in Texas. 

Personally, I rather suspect that in the long run, the statute of frauds will come to play a greater role in all of the many cases across the US.  It is so ingrained in our legal thinking, and so basic, it seems to have been overlooked in many of the early cases- the judges focused on the intricate polity arguments, and the Law 101 question got lost.

Such things are very Anglican.  Heated arguments ensue over whether or not a given “generous pastoral response” is or is not consistent with a “nuanced” interpretation of Lambeth 1.10, while ignoring that one side in the argument does not require baptism prior to receiving communion.

[12] Posted by tjmcmahon on 8-30-2013 at 11:57 AM · [top]

This is truly good news and a good decision.  I hope that this may eventually result in more such good news here in the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, where our case will be heard January 6th in Fresno.

[13] Posted by cennydd13 on 8-30-2013 at 05:35 PM · [top]

[6]  Timothy Fountain, I really have to hand it to you to put the matter squarely where it belongs…..right smack in the laps of the pew sitters who just can’t be bothered to pay attention to what’s going on, or who simply just don’t care!  Thanks for stating it so clearly.

[14] Posted by cennydd13 on 8-30-2013 at 07:08 PM · [top]

It seems likely, but isn’t certain, that Texas courts will properly apply neutral principles.  The Virginia court was supposed to do that and didn’t.

[15] Posted by Katherine on 8-30-2013 at 08:54 PM · [top]

It is gratifying to read such glad news.

[16] Posted by Paula Loughlin on 8-30-2013 at 09:19 PM · [top]

Timothy, you hit the nail square on the head! And cennydd13, let’s you and I pray together that January 6 sees the application of neutral principles in our case, like the appeals court directed. God bless the Texas courts!

[17] Posted by desertpadre on 8-31-2013 at 12:52 PM · [top]

Amen to that, desertpadre!  And we can be truly thankful that we have such an expert legal team representing us.

[18] Posted by cennydd13 on 8-31-2013 at 02:16 PM · [top]

Great news. 
I agree with Daniel.  It appears as though when “neutral principles of law” are used, ACNA wins and when “ecclesiastical hierarchy” is used, TEC wins and the parishoners lose their property and any sense of justice.
What is the logic of a national church or diocese that has spent not a penny one assuming ownership of someone else’s property which they and their forebearers have bought, built up and paid for over the generations??

[19] Posted by tpaine on 9-1-2013 at 11:22 AM · [top]

Let there be a true epiphany on Jan 6!

[20] Posted by maineiac on 9-1-2013 at 11:28 PM · [top]

The same day the Masterson opinion was released, it led to orders for revised filings for an en banc hearing for a Presbyterian congregation in a case which had summarily gone to the presbytery and denomination at the trial and appeal levels.  After years of toil, the playing field may be leveling.

[21] Posted by Wallaby on 9-4-2013 at 10:05 PM · [top]

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