Updated with the Diocese of Georgia's press release below the fold.
In a 6-1 decision, the Georgia Supreme Court this morning decided that Christ Episcopal Church in Savannah belonged to to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Georgia, not a breakaway faction aligned with the Anglican Church of Uganda. (Read the opinion.)
The justices wrote:
Having reviewed the governing documents of the local church and the general church, we conclude, as did the trial court and the Court of Appeals before us, that a trust on Christ Church’s property in favor of the Episcopal Church existed well before the dispute erupted that resulted in this litigation (and thus well before the 2006 corporate Articles of Amendment were filed). We need not decide whether the Episcopal Church had a trust on each parcel of real estate at issue at the moment it was obtained, nor if the neutral principles would have shown a trust on the property in 1823, 1918, 1981, or any other earlier time. Instead, we consider the record evidence of the “‘the intentions of the parties’ at the local and national level regarding beneficial ownership of the property at issue as expressed ‘before the dispute erupt[ed]’ in a ‘legally cognizable form.’” .... In doing so, we need not rely exclusively on the Dennis Canon. Instead, we consider the canon as one – although a strong one – of the many indications that Christ Church holds its property in trust for its parent church. In other words, like the highest courts of other states, we view the Dennis Canon as making explicit that which had always been implicit in the discipline of the Episcopal Church (and the Church of England before it), as shown in the documents setting forth, in legally cognizable and non-religious terms, the property-related rules and the relative authority of Christ Church, the Georgia Diocese, and the Episcopal Church, as well as the parties’ understanding of them as revealed by their course of conduct. ....
(“[T]he Dennis Canon adopted in 1979 merely codified in explicit terms a trust relationship that has been implicit in the relationship between local parishes and dioceses since the founding of [Episcopal Church] in 1789.”); Episcopal Church Cases, 198 P3d 66, 81-81 (Cal. 2009) (“Moreover, [the Dennis Canon] is consistent with earlier enacted canons that, although not using the word ‘trust,’ impose substantial limitations on the local parish’s use of church property and give the higher church authorities substantial authority over that property.”).
CCS and the dissent characterize this dispute as the Episcopal Church trying to take Christ Church’s property. We disagree with that view of the record and the law. The First Amendment allows CCS and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans, but it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Our conclusion regarding the effect of the governing documents of the local and general church in this case is consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, this Court’s prior cases, and the decisions of several other state supreme courts. See, e.g., Barber, 274 Ga. at 359 (“In this case, it is undisputed that the [parent church] remains a hierarchy, that the [local church] has been a member of the [parent church] for over thirty years, and that the [local church] is subject to the [parent church]’s discipline. Such discipline unquestionably provides that the [parent church] ‘shall hold all church property,’ thereby implying a trust for the benefit of the [parent church]. And this is irrespective of the [local church’s] continuing membership in the [parent church].” (footnotes and citations omitted)); Gauss, 28 A3d at 321 (noting that the “highest courts of several other jurisdictions also have concluded that the Dennis Canon applies to defeat claims of ownership and control over parish property by disaffected parish members, even in cases in which record title to the property has been held in the name of the parish since before enactment of the provision” (citing Episcopal Church Cases, 198 P3d at 79-81; Harnish, 899 NE2d at 924-925; and In re Church of St. James the Less, 888 A2d 795, 807-809 (Pa. 2005))). ....
In the end, it is fair to say, as the trial court did, that Christ Church can no more shrug off the trust, than the National Church could unilaterally impose it. The trust has historical roots going back to the English church and the founding of the Episcopal church in this country. Christ Church got the benefit of its bargain with the National Church for many years. The National Church has the right to insist on its part of the bargain as well.
Like the trial court and the Court of Appeals, we conclude that neutral principles of law demonstrate that an implied trust in favor of the Episcopal Church exists on the property of Christ Church.
Georgia Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Episcopal Church
The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church in its case against a breakaway congregation. The Georgia Supreme Court, which heard the case on May 9, affirmed the Georgia Court of Appeals’ July 2010 in a 6-1 ruling in favor of the Episcopalians. That ruling upheld Superior Court Judge Michael L. Karpf’s October 27, 2009 judgment that the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia is entitled to legal possession of the historic Christ Church building and other Church assets for the benefit of those who remain faithful to the Diocese and The Episcopal Church.
“While we are grateful that a third court has upheld our legal rights to the property held in trust for The Episcopal Church for more than 200 years, whatever satisfaction we feel in prevailing in the courts is muted by the knowledge that this decision is painful for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ,” Bishop Benhase said referring to the congregation that disaffiliated from The Episcopal Church while continuing to occupy church property. He added, “As Christians we know that even those with whom we disagree are also seeking to follow Jesus faithfully. While we were forced to take action when the breakaway congregation deprived the thriving congregation of Christ Church Episcopal of the property we hold in trust for them on Johnson Square, we know that both groups share faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world.”
The court’s opinion was based on neutral principles of law and stated, “In recent years this court has looked consistently to the requirements of the church discipline in hierarchical denomination to avoid offending the prohibitions of the First Amendment.” The justices noted that their task is to “discern the ‘intentions of the parties’ at the local and national level…before the dispute erupt[ed].” The majority opinion goes on to state, “And the record shows that at all times during the 180 years before this dispute began, Christ Church acted consistently with the Episcopal Church’s canons regarding its property, demonstrating the local church’s understanding that it could not consecrate, alienate, or encumber – much less leave with – its property without the consent of the parent church.”
Christian denominations representing a broad spectrum of religious faiths filed “amicus curiae” or “friend-of-the-court” briefs supporting The Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and Christ Church Episcopal in a case involving the ownership of the historic church building located on Johnson Square and other Church properties and assets. Those denominations that filed briefs in support of the Episcopalians include the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the Greek Orthodox Church, the United Methodist Church and the Church of God.
The dispute began when the former rector and vestry asserted that Christ Church would become affiliated with the Church of Uganda under the control of one of its bishops. This occurred after the former rector and members of the vestry, without prior notice to the Episcopal Bishop of Georgia or the congregation, changed the Church’s articles of incorporation to remove any reference to The Episcopal Church. The breakaway group then attempted to disavow the parish’s more than 200-year history as a part of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Georgia.
In the lawsuit filed in 2007, the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia asked the Court to declare that all real and personal property of Christ Church was held in trust for the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia as provided for in the Constitution and Canons of the Church and the Diocese. The continuing Episcopal congregation of Christ Church, known as Christ Church Episcopal, has been worshiping in another location for the past four years awaiting the final outcome of the case.
The Rev. Michael S. White, Rector of Christ Church Episcopal, stated, “We give thanks to God that this legal dispute over The Episcopal Church’s property on Johnson Square has reached a conclusion. We remain saddened that our brothers and sisters decided to leave The Episcopal Church. Our Church is diminished by their absence and by the loss of their voice in our midst.”
White added, “We will return to our church home on Johnson Square and maintain our abiding commitment to Christian grace, joy, humility, and forgiveness.”
Mimi Jones, Christ Church Episcopal Church’s Senior Warden said, “For the past four years, we have continued to worship, love and serve God. As Episcopalians, ‘We strive to love our neighbors as ourselves and respect the dignity of every person’. We are a congregation filled with joy and we welcome everyone to worship with us. ‘We celebrate our unity in Christ while honoring our difference, always putting the work of love before uniformity of opinion’. We seek to move forward, in the days ahead, with thankfulness, humility and grateful hearts.”
A statement released by Christ Church Episcopal notes, “For the time being, we will continue to worship at St. Michael and All Angel’s Episcopal Church on Washington Avenue each Sunday at 5 p.m. This is necessary until further notice as we conclude certain administrative matters necessarily associated with our transitioning back to our historic home on Johnson Square.”
White also added, “Each day, we seek to be faithful stewards of Christ’s Word and Sacraments. We are a people grounded in the worship of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
Christ Church, founded in 1733 shortly after the arrival of General James Oglethorpe and the original colonists, is known as the “Mother Church of Georgia” and is one of the oldest churches in the State of Georgia. The church has also been the home for many of Savannah’s most prominent citizens including Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low, Academy-award winner Johnny Mercer and former mayor Malcolm R. Maclean.