Fort Worth bishop, legal team respond to misinformation regarding South Carolina decision

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Bishop Scott Mayer, provisional bishop of the continuing diocese of Fort Worth has asked their legal team to address misinformation surrounding the recent property decision by the South Carolina Supreme Court and the on-going legal process over who is the rightful diocese in Fort Worth. He has issued this statement:

As you may know, last week the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled against the former bishop and others attempting to take a diocese out of The Episcopal Church while claiming Episcopal Church property. And while we rejoice with the Episcopalians there, we also hold all involved in our prayers. We, better than most, understand that all litigation takes a toll on all involved.

Our legal team notes that South Carolina was one of the few states cited by the breakaways to justify their actions. But as one South Carolina justice wrote, South Carolina’s new ruling is “consistent with the majority of state court decisions.” The Episcopal Church has prevailed in case after case.

The Fort Worth Court of Appeals will decide our case based on the law and facts. Recently, however, there has been some misleading information put out about how the South Carolina ruling might affect our case here in Fort Worth. So I asked our legal team to address the misstated legal implications in a statement we could share with those interested. They sent the information below in response to my request. They have also filed a detailed filing with the Second Court of Appeals. I am sharing it with you knowing you will read it carefully. As always, please remember that speculation and public comment on litigation are discouraged.

Faithfully in Christ,

Scott Mayer
Provisional Bishop
Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth

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Legal Team Response

Churches, not courts, decide religious questions

Just like in our case, the South Carolina breakaways claimed to take an Episcopal diocese and congregations from The Episcopal Church. The South Carolina Supreme Court made clear: only The Episcopal Church can decide who controls an Episcopal diocese and congregations, even in a case about property. The Texas Supreme Court said the same thing. So did the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is critical. The breakaways in our case admit that the property they took is in trust for the Episcopal diocese and congregations. Only The Episcopal Church can decide who controls the Episcopal diocese and congregations. The breakaways must return the property to the only authorized representatives of the Episcopal diocese and congregations: the Episcopal Plaintiffs.

Property disputes don’t erase the First Amendment

The South Carolina court rejected the same arguments that the breakaways make in our Fort Worth case. As in South Carolina, the breakaways in our case claim that, if property is involved, a court can override the Church on who controls a diocese or congregation. South Carolina rejected that view and called it a “distorted” approach – just like the U.S. and Texas Supreme Courts rejected that view.

Why it matters

South Carolina law applies to South Carolina, not Texas, but the opinion is still noteworthy. In the past, breakaway groups often cited to outlier positions from South Carolina to justify taking property from their churches. Now they cannot. In the words of one South Carolina justice, the new ruling from South Carolina is “consistent with the majority of state court decisions.”

The First Amendment is clear: only the loyal Episcopalians authorized by The Episcopal Church can control the Episcopal diocese and congregations. And since, in our case, it is undisputed that the property taken by the breakaways is in trust for the Episcopal diocese and congregations, the property should be returned to those Episcopal entities without further inquiry.

Other issues

In a recent statement, the breakaways in our case downplayed the South Carolina ruling by pointing to side issues and misleading information. While our case should be resolved on the straightforward law above, we address those other bits of misinformation from the breakaways now:

Revocability. The breakaways in our case claim that South Carolina’s ruling does not matter because the trusts in South Carolina were irrevocable, while our trusts were purportedly revoked by the breakaways. That is false.

a. Trust for the Episcopal diocese and congregations. The breakaways in our case admit that the trust in favor of the Episcopal diocese and congregations has never been revoked. And the breakaways could not revoke it now if they wanted to – they have no role or authority in the Episcopal diocese or congregations.

b. Trusts in the Deeds.The breakaways in our case wholly ignore the fifty-five deeds reciting a trust for “the Protestant Episcopal Church.” The breakaways do not claim to be the Protestant Episcopal Church. Those trusts are irrevocable, and the parties who created them are long deceased.

c. Trust in the Dennis Canon. In our case, the diocese and every congregation agreed to hold the property in trust for the Church in exchange for the diocese’s creation and the transfer of over $100 million in property from another Episcopal diocese. Under controlling law, that agreement made the trust irrevocable. The breakaways want to ignore that law, but as the South Carolina court aptly warned: “What we cannot do is pick and choose which state laws to apply in order to justify a desired result.”

Corporations law. Citing corporations law is a red herring; the only corporation in our case is a mere trustee, holding the property in trust for the Episcopal diocese and congregations. Who controls the trustee is irrelevant. What matters is who controls the beneficiary of the trust – in other words, who controls the diocese and congregations entitled to the property.

Minimal burden. This is another red herring. The South Carolina court was right on this issue: courts should not burden a church’s constitution and canons by forcing them to incorporate the formalities of every state’s trust law. That was never what the U.S. Supreme Court intended in Jones v. Wolf. But Texas has already taken another view on this issue, and as required, we argued our case under the Texas view. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court may decide which approach is correct, but we showed that the loyal Episcopalians are entitled to the property either way.

Full accession. The breakaways claim in our case that they “qualified” their promises to The Episcopal Church. But those promises were in writing: the Episcopal diocese and congregations “fully” and “unanimously” acceded to the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. There was no asterisk qualifying the accession.

The U.S. Constitution. We addressed this point above. Texas, South Carolina, and the U.S. Supreme Court all agree: only The Episcopal Church can decide who controls the Episcopal diocese and congregations, even in a case involving property. The First Amendment requires this result, and under our facts, that should resolve the case for the Episcopal Plaintiffs.

Quick links:

Bishop’s statement and legal team response with footnotes
Filing with the Second Court of Appeals

___________________________________________

In that filing with Second Court of Appeals:

The central issue in our case is who may control the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth: the parties authorized by The Episcopal Church or the parties that broke away from The Episcopal Church. Because the breakaways have admitted that the property is held in trust for the Episcopal Diocese and its constituent congregations, the analysis comes down to which party may control those entities and thus use the property. The South Carolina opinions confirm what the Texas Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have already made clear: even under a neutral principles analysis, only The Episcopal Church can decide who controls and represents an Episcopal Diocese, even if limited deference on that ecclesiastical issue has an effect on the outcome of the property case. This is an important holding from South Carolina, because South Carolina had previously issued an outlier opinion often cited by breakaway groups to justify their taking of property.

In Diocese of South Carolina, the lead and concurring opinions explained that the dispute was essentially a religious one masquerading as a dispute over property and corporate control. These opinions recognized that the ultimate issue before the court was “which of two competing dioceses is the true Episcopal diocese in the lower half of South Carolina and thus has the right to control the property at issue.”

As reported by the Post & Courier, “The Diocese of South Carolina under the leadership of Bishop Mark Lawrence was granted an extension on Friday [August 4] for filing a request for a rehearing, giving lawyers 30 days to submit their petition with the S.C. Supreme Court. If granted the petition, attorneys will argue the case again, this time before a court whose members have partially changed.”

This post was last updated, 1:20 PM 8/10/2017.

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Rob Huttmeyer
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Rob Huttmeyer

Nobody is saying that you cannot leave, just you cannot take all the things that do not belong to you. It would be like me demanding to keep the computer provided by my work once I resigned and moved on.

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Gwen Palmer
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Gwen Palmer

It keeps amazing me, that so many commenters either do not know that TEC did in fact offer a generous settlement letting the breakaway churches keep their parish properties - or don't find it important. The breakaway group sued TEC, not the other way around and TEC offered them their churches free and clear. Rev. Lynch, can you explain what is so specifically ugly and greedy about that? What indicates clutching at treasure on earth? Every one of those churches could be an ACNA parish with TEC's blessing if they -they- had not turned down the offer and kept their suit against TEC going.

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Tom Downs
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Tom Downs

What part of your education did not explain the difference between hierarchical and congregational systems of church organization? If you want a congregational structure, start your own non-denominational congregation. You can still use the BCP, but it won't be an Episcopal Church.
If what you feel is a sense of the unfairness in all this I agree with you, but not for the reasons you cited. If I gave the money for a chalice and then decided I didn't like the sermons, could I take it with me (even in a congregationally organized congregation) when I went to the church down the street? Followers of Jesus should be able to get along with each other, even when we differ. Building parties and scheming to get around the rules shouldn't be thought necessary. Unfortunately, all attempts by humans to build a peaceable kingdom are doomed by the fact that they include more than one person. 😉

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Rev. David Justin Lynch
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TEC has the Dennis Canon for one reason: to protect money and power. That is so antithetical to the Christian Mission: to baptize and preach the Gospel, to build up the Kingdom of God. Christians taking other Christians to Court over money and property is most unseemly. TEC should have settled these cases long, long ago, instead of going into Court to force their way as the only way. The issue is not with what denominational body a congregation is affiliated, but rather whether that congregation is building up the Kingdom of God. If it is doing that, let it be, let them go, wish them well, and above all, stay friends! TEC's litigation tactics have been a public relations disaster. Litigation over church property alienates people from Church, alienates people from God. As denominations acquire more money and more power, they want more and more, and they move to protect it once acquired. No! We are called to lay up treasure in heaven, not on earth.

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Bill Ghrist
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Bill Ghrist

1) I seriously doubt that in most cases the present congregation of a parish consists of most of the people who contributed the money to build the building. Maybe Rev. Lynch lives in a newer, expanding area, but I think most Episcopal Church buildings are older than the majority (in many cases, all) of their members.

2) Regardless of (1), when you give money to a parish to build, maintain, or upgrade the building you are making a tax exempt charitable contribution, which means that you are explicitly NOT purchasing part ownership. The money and what it buys is the property of the parish, which is a part of The Episcopal Church.

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Rev. David Justin Lynch
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Speaking as a (now former) lawyer, yes the legal analysis reflects the present state of the law. But I mightily disagree with the Dennis Canon as I strongly believe in the integrity of the local congregation, which should have the right to decide with which larger body to affiliate, and be able to change that affiliation if it no longer suits their needs. I am a progressive Catholic Christian. How would my fellow progressives feel if, for example, a conservative national body took stances antithetical to its values such that it wants to leave? The people of the congregation, in most, but not all, cases, raised the money to build the building. It's theirs. This is not a liberal-conservative question!

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Bruce Alan Wilson
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Unless it is a brand new church, no. My current parish ha been in its present building 100+ years. Those who contributed the funds to build it are long departed.

If you want each congregation to be an independent unit, perhaps you should be a Baptist or a Congregationalist.

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