Update: Two friends in Texas inform us that the Roman Catholic Church is lobbying against the bill, as are the Baptists, who, while not hierarchical in the same way as Catholics and mainline Protestants, could have property at stake.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana), a close ally of new Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, would allow the court to divide property and other assets "in a manner that the court considers just and right."
If passed, the bill would significantly strengthen the hand of individual parishes trying to break away from hierarchical churches. However, it would not go into effect until September 1, too late to help former Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker in his efforts to take the property of the diocese he once led with him as he enters the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, headquartered in Argentina. That led us to wonder who might have asked Rep. Cook, a Southern Baptist, to file a bill that seems aimed at causing problems for more hierarchical churches.
Sam Hodges of The Dallas Morning News was wondering, too, and he didn't have far to look. As it turns out the Rev. Canon Ed Monk, of St. John's Episcopal Church in Corsicana asked him to file the bill. Monk, a protégé of Bishop Keith Ackerman, former bishop of Quincy, is a deputy to the 2009 General Convention from the Diocese of Dallas and immediate past president of Bishop James Stanton's Standing Committee.
Monk's rapid rise in the Diocese of Dallas, and his close relationship with Ackerman, who named him a canon at St. Paul's Cathedral in Peoria, raises questions about whether either bishop was involved in or had knowledge of the bill. Neither Stanton, who founded the conservative American Anglican Council, nor Ackerman, who is president for Forward in Faith, a group that opposes the ordination of women, has spoken publicly about the proposed legislation.
According to the Dallas News:
Some Episcopal Church officials are weighing in negatively on the bill.
"Our [Episcopal] Church strives for unity, and this bill is divisive," said the Rev. Andy Doyle, bishop coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which covers the Houston area. Officials affiliated with other denominations also express concern.
Other bishops in Texas have yet to speak on the bill.
The legislation seems unlikely to pass for several reasons, not least among them that it would likely be viewed as a fairly straightforward violation of the separation of church and state. Additionally, as Hodges notes, the Texas legislature passes only about a quarter of the 6,200 bills that are filed each session, and this one is likely to face opposition from the Catholic Church, and most mainline Protestant denominations.
If nothing else, this incident makes clear precisely why the state should stay out of church property matters. A single priest with a powerful ally in the legislature has set in motion a bill that would put hierarchical churches in danger of losing control of their assets to any dissatisfied group that can wrap its complaint in doctrinal garb. The First Amendment exists in large measure to protect churches from this sort of interference.
Finally, if experiencing a sense of déjà vu , that is because the Anglican right has pulled this move before. In February 2005, a Virginia legislator with close ties to the breakaway churches in that state filed a bill that would have made it easier for those congregations to leave the Episcopal Church and keep their property. It was withdrawn amidst bad publicity, and the breakaway churches in Virginia have thus far succeeded in court without it. But that effort, like this one in Texas, is evidence of the Anglican right's discomfort with the First Amendment.
Post script: I forgot that the Virginia legislator who proposed the legislation is now the top advisor in the state attorney general's office, and the AG has joined the case on the side of the breakaway congregations.