The diocese of San Joaquin, in California’s Central Valley, was rent by a split in 2007, led by then bishop John Schofield, when a majority at the diocesan convention voted to leave the Episcopal Church. The resulting dispute over ownership of the property has been in litigation and may soon be approaching a final end. The California Supreme Court will decide in as soon as a week whether or not to accept an appeal of a lower court decision which determined that 28 disputed properties were wrongly taken by the breakaway Anglican Diocese.
The 2014 decision by Fresno County Superior Court Judge Donald S. Black ordered the return of 28 properties held by the breakaway group to the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and said that dioceses cannot opt to leave the Episcopal Church. St. James Cathedral, the former diocesan offices, the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center near Yosemite National Park, the diocesan investment trust and 25 other church properties, valued at about $50 million, were included in that decision. Judge Black said that “because a diocese is a geographical construct of the Church, it makes no sense that a diocese can ‘leave’ the Church; it does not exist apart from the Church.”
The 5th Appellate District Court of California affirmed the decision by Judge Black that the 28 properties were in trust with the Episcopal Church and therefore Bishop Schofield’s attempts to transfer the property to the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin were invalid. Nevertheless, Bishop Eric Vawter Menees, who is Schofield’s successor, with attorney Russell VanRozeboom filed an appeal to the Supreme Court. It is the decision whether or not to accept that appeal which will be decided soon.
If the Supreme Court decides to take up the appeal, then further litigation – and a final decision, are likely at least a year away. If the Supreme Court opts to not take the case, the Appellate court’s decision holding up the decision in Fresno County Superior Court stands. Both sides have side they are prepared to accept this final decision without further litigation.