The Fresno Bee reports on the latest inning in the court battle between the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and the breakaway group led by former Bishop Schofield. While the justices sent the case back to trial, they also established some non-debatable "ecclesiastical facts" that must guide the decision.
Meanwhile over in the diocese of Fort Worth, the Episcopal diocese noted that this situation is very similar to their own, with the same "ecclesiastical facts" and is pleased with the outcome.
The appellate justices tossed out a Superior Court judge's decision that the breakaway diocese couldn't claim a right to the property in a jury trial. The judge essentially had decided that it was a church matter, not a matter for the civil courts.
In sending the case back to Superior Court, however, the justices supported some parts of the U.S. Episcopal Church's case, according to a news release from the church. In particular, the justices ruled that the continuity of the diocese is a matter regulated by church law.
Here are the essential "ecclesiastical facts" as understood by the court: (1) The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin is the rightful and continuing diocese of the Episcopal Church; (2) Bishop Schofield stopped being their Bishop on January 11, 2008; that Bishop Jerry Lamb became the Bishop of the Diocese on March 29, 2008; (3) the holding company set up by the breakaway diocese that would keep the title of all Episcopal property in the diocese did not become an official entity until April, 2008.
This means that the attempt to transfer property from the existing diocese to the new holding company on behalf of the breakaway group took place after Schofield and his supporters left the Episcopal Church.
In a press release from the Diocese, the Chancellor, Michael Glass, discusses the implication for the case:
Chancellor Michael Glass noted that the Court of Appeal’s decision foreclosed all of the Defendants’ main arguments in support of their attempt to retain possession of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin’s assets and real properties. “The defendants can no longer assert in court that a Diocese has the right to unilaterally accede from The Episcopal Church, or that Bishop Lamb is somehow not the Bishop of the Diocese”, said Glass.
After determining that the former Bishop’s powers were suspended as of January 11, 2008, the Court of Appeal also noted that the trial court should “resolve issues concerning property transfers assertedly made by Schofield while he was the duly constituted Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin.” Nearly all of the transfers of the properties in question to the defendant Anglican Diocese Holding Corporation (“ADHC”) occurred well after the defendants formed the ADHC when its articles of incorporation were filed with the California Secretary of State in April 2008.
Asked how the Court of Appeal’s decision was going to impact the case, Chancellor Glass replied, “Think sacrifice fly-ball. Sure, we might have taken an out, but we just put the rest of the case in scoring position.” Chancellor Glass explained that with the issues considerably narrowed in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and The Episcopal Church that the plaintiffs are cautiously optimistic about moving ahead with the case to recover the assets of the Diocese for the mission of the Episcopal Church.
The Diocese of Fort Worth put out a news release of their own today noting the similarities between their situation and the ruling in San Joaquin.
...The opinion strongly affirms the position of the Episcopalians in the Diocese of Fort Worth that The Episcopal Church’s undisputed recognition of Bishop Edwin F. Gulick, Jr. and then Bishop C. Wallis Ohl as bishops of the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth formed in 1982, and its recognition of the continuing diocese within The Episcopal Church, is binding on the local trial courts that will decide which faction—those who remained in The Episcopal Church or those who left it—has the authority and right to use, possess and control the real and personal property, funds, records, names, and seals of the diocese and its 55 parishes and missions.... ...These facts are virtually identical to the undisputed “ecclesiastical facts” that are now before local trial courts in Fort Worth. “First, before and through [December 5, 2008,] [Iker] was the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of [Fort Worth]; on that day, his powers as Episcopal Bishop were suspended by the national church.” “Second, after [February 7, 2009] [Bishop Edwin F. Gulick, Jr]. was the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, duly recognized by the national church.” “Third, at some point [Iker] became the Anglican Bishop presiding over an Anglican Diocese of [Fort Worth], affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America.” Thus the Church’s determinations of which is the “real” Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth formed in 1982, and who is the “real” incumbent bishop of that diocese and who are the “real” trustees of the diocesan corporation, will determine disposition of the disputed property that has been acquired for the ministry of The Episcopal Church for more than 170 years before Bishop Iker and others left the Church and its diocese.
Here is the complete ruling.