U. S. Supreme Court denies appeal by breakaway parish in CT

The United States Supreme Court has decided to let stand a ruling that upholds the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut's victory in the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The court denied a petition filed by former clergy and members of Bishop Seabury Episcopal Church in Groton for a writ of certiorari. A writ is issued if four justices express an interest in hearing the case. The former members of Bishop Seabury now belong to the Anglican Church in North America.

Background on the case of Gauss v. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America is here.

SCOTUSblog defined the issue in the case as: "Whether the First Amendment, as interpreted by this Court in Jones v. Wolf, requires state civil courts to enforce an alleged trust imposed on local church property by provisions in denominational documents, regardless of whether those provisions would be legally cognizable under generally applicable rules of state property and trust law."

Can people with some legal background tell us whether it is fair to say that the U. S. Supreme Court has refused an opportunity to review the Dennis Canon?

Make sure to read Eric Bonetti's instructive analysis in the comments.

Comments (15)

Hi Jim. I'm no longer admitted to practice law, but I would characterize this as a case where the Supremes have declined an opportunity to hear a case that could have implicated the Dennis Canon. It's difficult to know why the Court declined cert--sometimes, it's that there isn't a sufficient body of law yet in the circuits. Other times, the facts of the case aren't postured in a manner that is attractive to the Court. Other times, the Court may just feel that its limited bandwidth is better used on other cases. And if we could poll the law clerks and justices, we probably would find that there was a range of reasons behind the denial of cert.

It's also worth noting that the Supremes usually go for the narrowest possible ruling, since over-broad decisions tend to come back to haunt the Court. So even had the Court granted cert, the decision might well not have encompassed a review of the Dennis Canon.

Keep in mind, too, that the Court declined to hear Pawley Island, even though I suspect the state supreme court may have misunderstood the issues before it. In that case, the issue also may have been the narrow set of facts in front of the state courts--I would not conclude from the case that the Dennis Canon has been struck down in that state. Rather, the prior grant of a quitclaim deed appears to have been the controlling factor.

Looking at the cases as a whole, many courts have felt that they need not reach the larger constitutional issues, but rather can decide the matter as a contract law issue. Since parishes must give full and unqualified assent to the accession clause and TEC constitution, as well as all later modifications, there often is great deference to the canons of the church.

Eric Bonetti

So this is the likely outcome too for the LA cases? At what point will they get the point?

In his post today about these denials of cert., Howard Friedman reminds us that

"the Supreme Court last month dismissed the petition for certiorari [in] Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of Christ Church in Savannah v. Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, (Docket No. 11-1166, dismissed 5/21/2012), the Georgia Supreme Court had also held that the congregation's property belongs to the parent body, the Episcopal Church."


Denial of cert. implies that 3 or less of the SCOTUS justices were interested in reviewing the case.

Reminder: Falls Church "Anglican" is preparing an appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. That's another case that could eventually be appealed to SCOTUS.


Michael, perhaps it isn't about doggedly trying to win a fight they know they are going to lose for the sake of gaining property. Rather, it is likely "fighting the good fight" for the sake of standing against the aberration the perceive TEC to be and to be the valiant victim. I think it is part of a larger strategy to supplant TEC as the Anglican communion in the US.


I think you are probably correct in how they see themselves. Given the C of E's recent nasty, bigoted and poorly founded position on equality for gay couples, TEC and many many C of E people may not wish to associate with Canterbury either.

But I also think they are just doing this to sap money from TEC and I am sorry we are not suing the rectors and vestries individually for the resources they have alienated. Since they are going to play the martyr anyway we might as well get compensated for it!!!!

Hi John. Given the TFCA has been to the state supremes once, chances that TFCA will prevail there are remote. And given that the TFCA decision hinged largely on state law and its reconstruction-era property division statue (an uncommon provision in state law), I'd guess that the Supremes will find this case less compelling than the two cases on which they declined cert this morning.

To Jeff's point, if I were still practicing law and had TFCA as a client, I'd urge careful consideration of the idea that parish resources could better be spent on securing a new building and moving on with life. If nothing else, it is hard to find joy within the parish community when there's litigation afoot.

Eric Bonetti

@Michael: Precedent from sist6r jurisdictions is persuasive, but not controlling. With the overwhelming majority of cases ruling in favor of TEC, I'd say the remaining cases are, on the state level, likely to rule in favor of TEC. And odds that the Supremes will get involved continue to drop as the Court repeatedly denies cert.

Eric Bonetti

@Eric, you're more the expert, but my sense is that we're well past the reconstruction-era law (actually, it was passed in the brief period between the end of the war and the establishment of reconstruction).

When the Dioc of Va appealed to the Virginia Supremes, the Supremes ruled that the law did not apply and sent the case back to the trial judge with instructions not to apply the law. Admittedly, the Virginia Supremes did not rule the law unconstitutional, only not applicable.

My conclusion: The TFCA's appeal will be on the sorts of grounds we've seen in other states.

Eric, I agree wholeheartedly that parish resources would be better spent in the manner you recommend. Nonetheless, pragmatic actions are frequently absent in nasty divorces.

Jim, I would not say SCOTUS has turned down an opportunity to overturn its own decision (Jones v. Wolf) on which the Dennis Canon is founded. And it's not only because it's reluctant to overturn in general. The decision said neutral principles means you don't simply look at deeds, that the members of the religious body (the denomination) can create a trust, that the genius of property law is that it is adaptable.

"the neutral-principles analysis shares the peculiar genius of private-law systems in general - flexibility in ordering private rights and obligations to reflect the intentions of the parties. Through appropriate reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify what is to happen to church property in the event of a particular contingency, or what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal controversy. In this manner, a religious organization can ensure that a dispute over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires of the members."


Hi John. I think we're saying the same thing--the Reconstruction era statute was the basis for the original Fairfax County decision, which was subsequently overturned by the VA Supreme Court. (And rightly so, since the law facially didn't apply.) Since there's no counterpart in federal law, there's almost no chance that the Supremes will address the state's property division statute here in Virginia.

Beyond that, there are two ways to overturn a state court decision. One is to find that there's been an error of law involving federal statutory or constitutional provisions; the states are typically held to be the best judge of their own statutes and constitutions. The other is a glaring case of erroneous findings of fact.

In either instance, courts that have already had a case remanded typically are careful to get it right the second time. So, odds are that the trial court has been diligent on this case, and the voluminous record certainly supports that conclusion.

The other issue that TFCA will attempt to raise is one of donor intent, since it appears that for several years pledge cards in the parish permitted donors to state that they did not wish their pledges to go to the diocese or TEC. Leaving aside the faulty logic behind this issue (by giving to a component of the diocese, one by definition gives to the diocese), if I recall correctly, this matter was not raised in a timely manner by the state attorney general's office, which has filed an amicus brief in the case. Thus, even were this argument valid, it can't be considered on appeal.

Were I were a betting man, my money would not be on TFCA in this case.

Eric Bonetti

Eric Bonetti, the U.S. Supreme Court didn't decline to hear the Pawleys Island case. The petition for cert was dismissed (not denied) because the parties reached a settlement. Whether the court would have granted cert if there hadn't been a settlement is anyone's guess, but given the very small number of petitions that are accepted each term, it's doubtful.

The Court will get another bite of the apple next term. The Presbytery of South Louisiana (more or less the equivalent of a diocese in the Presbyterian Church USA) has asked the Court to review a decision by an intermediate appeals court in Louisiana in favor of a breakaway congregation. In that case, the appeals court held that the Presbyterians' equivalent of the Dennis Canon was not sufficient to create a trust under Louisiana law.

I think those seeking U.S. Supreme Court review--whether the national church or the local congregation--are going to have a tough time. Property issues are primarily a matter of state law. The petitioners will have to show the Supreme Court that the state law is in conflict with the U.S. Constitution or with a federal statute. Conflicting rulings among the various state courts are not as much a concern as conflicting rulings among the various federal circuits are.

Hi Paul. My diction regarding the Pawley's Island case was no doubt poor; the case was indeed withdrawn when the case was settled. That said, the state supreme court, rightly or wrongly, used one of the two tests permissable under Jones to determine that the quit claim deed in the instant case controlled. That case was allowed to stand, and serves as persuasive precedent to other state courts, since the Court could, arguendo, address the issue via Timberridge or the other cases that have gone up on appeal.

What I find interesting, however, is the argument on Anglicab Curmudgeon, which is that "it is an axiomatic principle of trust law that an express trust can be created only by the settlor, not by unilateral action of the beneficiary." While that is no doubt true, it begs a larger issue: When a subdivision within a church, such as a parish, exists only by virtue of its existence as a component of the church, how can one party be the settlor, and the other the benficiary? Indeed, an Episcopal parish exists only because it has agreed to be just that--an Episcopal parish. Having decided to be an Episcopal parish, the local church cannot later turn around and claim not to be bound by the very rules that govern and create Episcopal parishes.

Eric Bonetti

Actually, Eric, today the Supreme Court also denied cert in Timberridge.

You raise an interesting about who's the settlor and who's the beneficiary. I wonder whether it has been raised (or accepted by court) in any of the various church property cases. I think though it begs the question about whether a parish exists only as a component of the church. You may have a point with respect to a parish that was started as a diocesan mission and only recently achieved parish status. I think your argument is weaker when you are talking about a parish like The Falls Church, which was founded before there was an Episcopal Church or a Diocese of Virginia. In fact, in the Virginia cases the judge rejected the Dennis Canon and ruled in favor of the diocese and TEC on other grounds.

Hi Paul. I didn't go into Timberridge as much, as I'm less familiar with the facts of the case and the relevant law. (I live very close to The Falls Church and attend a nearby parish.) The two cases were, however, linked when they went up on appeal, and the Court declined to hear both.

Interestingly, Falls Church actually did fully ascribe to the accession clause and voluntarily chose to become part of TEC. The original parish in Falls Church was abandoned after the revolution and the structure fell into disuse. It was not until 1836 that a group of Episcopalians in the area began lobbying to restore the building and join DioVa. The parish was admitted in 1836, and agreed to the following language in the diocesan constitution: Every parish within this Diocese shall be entitled to the entire benefit of this Convention, as soon as it shall have signified its ratification thereof, either in writing or by sending a Lay Delegate to the Convention; and such parish shall thereafter be benefitted and bound, equally with the other parishes in this Diocese, by every rule and canon which shall be framed, by any Convention acting under this Constitution for the government of this Church in ecclesiastical concerns.

Joan Gunderson did a wonderful piece on the topic, and on Truro and Pohick, that can be found online at http://www.jrgundersen.name/historic.htm

Eric Bonetti

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