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The Episcopal Church and the Texas Supreme Court

On August 30, 2013, the Texas Supreme Court decided two cases involving the Episcopal Church of the United States. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the cases, making the results final. (In case you’re wondering, this has nothing to do with oil and gas. The cases are of interest to me as an Episcopalian.) The two cases were basically a fight over ownership of church property. The parties engaged some of the most powerful firms and lawyers in the state, and multiple amicus briefs were filed. And the cases grapple with the right to free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

There are about 4.5 million Episcopalians in the U.S. — fewer than the number of Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Lutherans, or Presbyterians. Episcopalians, however, are often some of the elite and most powerful members of society in the U.S. The Episcopal Church in America was founded in 1789 and is a part of the Anglican Communion, which has about 80 million members worldwide. The Church is associated with and has its roots in the Church of England, founded by Henry VIII when Pope Clement VIII refused to approve the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

The two cases decided by the Texas Supreme Court last year, The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth v. The Episcopal Church, and Masterson v. The Diocese of Northwest Texas, have their genesis in the consecration of Gene Robinson by the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2004 — the first openly gay bishop in the Episcopal Church. In response, the Diocese of Fort Worth voted in 2007 and 2008 to withdraw from the Episcopal Church and enter into membership with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, a group of Anglican churches in South America. And the Diocese claimed to still own the properties of the churches within the Diocese of Fort Worth. (Three churches in the Diocese did not agree with the Diocese’s action and withdrew from the Diocese; the Diocese transferred property used by those churches to them.)

Meanwhile, in San Angelo, the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd voted (53 to 30) to withdraw from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Northwest Texas and to form a new church, the Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd. And it claimed to own its church property.

In both cases, the trial court, after hearing the parties’ arguments, ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church, holding that the Fort Worth Diocese and the Church of the Good Shepherd could not keep church property when they left the Episcopal Church. The Texas Supreme Court reversed in both cases, holding that they could.

The Episcopal Church argued that it was a “hierarchical” church, meaning that it is structured with a central organization — the General Convention of the Episcopal Church — at the top, Dioceses — geographic regions headed by a Bishop — below that, and individual churches, or parishes, at the bottom. It argued that all church property is held by each individual parish church in trust for The Episcopal Church, and that any congregation which severed its ties with The Episcopal Church lost its right to manage the Church’s property. The Canons of The Episcopal Church provide that “All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitutions and Canons.”  When Good Shepherd Church in San Angelo was formed, it agreed in its petition for formation that its members were “conscientiously attached to the Doctrine, Discipline and Worship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.”

The majority opinion in the Good Shepherd case agreed that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution “severely circumscribes the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes,” and prohibited civil courts from inquiring into matters concerning “theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them.”  It quoted the U.S. Supreme Court’s prior decision that “whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them.”

The majority of the court nevertheless held that title to church property was a matter of state law, not ecclesiastical law, and that, under Texas law, the church properties belong to the individual churches and are not held in trust for the benefit of The Episcopal Church. Two justices dissented.

Disputes within church organizations arise from time to time, resulting in schisms and fights over church properties. Protestant churches divided during the Civil War. Churches have disagreed over ordination of women. Last week, the Anglican Communion voted to allow women to be appointed as bishops.

The relation between church and state also pops up in other ways — for example, the recent dispute over application of provisions of the Affordable Care Act to church-affiliated hospitals. Courts will continue to struggle with these issues as long as the Constitution stands and citizens continue to worship their gods.

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