California Supreme Court rules against breakaway Episcopal churches

A Newport Beach church lost a battle in the California Supreme Court today. The high court ruled that St. James Anglican Church and three other parishes don't have a right to keep their buildings and land after breaking away from the national denomination. KPCC's Susan Valot and Brian Watt say it's a battle that started more than five years ago.

Susan Valot on the court ruling:

Susan Valot: That's when the Episcopal Church allowed the consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. That upset dozens of parishes nationwide.

A few months later, St. James in Newport Beach and two other Southern California parishes pulled out of the Episcopal Church.

That set off a legal battle over who owns the church buildings and the land they're on. A lower court sided with the parishes over the L.A. Diocese of the Episcopal Church of the United States.

But first an appeals court, and now the California Supreme Court, say the Diocese should get the assets. Eric Sohlgren is the attorney representing the parishes in the state Supreme Court battle.

Eric Sohlgren: The court seemed to be saying that a church denomination, not other kinds of religious groups but a church denomination, could pass an internal rule, claiming an interest in local church property, without even getting the consent of the local church. And even though the local church holds all the deeds to the property and has paid for every dime of it.

Valot: Sohlgren says that raises constitutional issues of the government preferring certain forms of religion over others.

Sohlgren: We're disappointed that the Supreme Court seems to be enforcing unilateral rules passed by churches claiming an interest over local church property. No one else in our society gets to pass those kinds of rules. For example, a homeowners' association could not pass a rule claiming a trust interest in the homes of association members.

Valot: Attorney Eric Sohlgren, who represents the local breakaway churches, says the battle's "far from over." He says they'll take their case back to the lower court and if necessary, consider an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Brian Watt on the Episcopal Diocese' reaction:

Brian Watt: I'm Brian Watt in Los Angeles, where the Episcopal Diocese hailed the California Supreme Court ruling as "final, conclusive, and definitive." Now, Bishop Jon Bruno wants to bring the breakaway parishes back into the fold.

Bishop Jon Bruno: First of all, we're gonna issue a pastoral letter to all of our churches and all of these congregations. We're gonna invite reconciliation and people coming back.
Watt: And if there is no reconciliation?
Bruno: People can leave the Episcopal Church anytime they want. What this decision has said is that the property will stay with the Episcopal Church. We've attempted since the beginning of these litigations to make a home for all these people.

Watt: Bruno added that the Episcopal Church will continue its ministry in the Newport Beach, North Hollywood, Long Beach areas, for all congregants.

Bruno: Acts of conscience are one of the things we prize about the Episcopal Church. There's a balance between the right, the left, the conservative, the liberal, and we find via media where we can allow people to participate and worship the way that they choose.

Watt: The Diocese said the California Supreme Court's ruling establishes a precedent that could spread national ripples. Its attorney acknowledged there could be further legal wrangling within the denomination, but he wouldn't speculate on how it will turn out.