The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth shared the following statement on their website this past week:
On Friday, February 8, 2019, the Texas Supreme Court said it would like to consider briefing on the merits before deciding whether to take up the breakaways parties’ petition for review of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals April 2018 opinion in favor of the loyal Episcopalians of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and our conditional cross-petition for review. The conditional cross-petition asserted additional grounds to prevail in the litigation. The petitions for review are still under consideration by the Supreme Court.
The court laid out a timeline for filing of the briefs:
- Parties shall file their opening briefs by March 11, 2019
- Responses are due by April 1, 2019
- Replies are due by April 16, 2019.
“This was not an unexpected development,” said Bishop Scott Mayer. “Our attorneys are well prepared to respond to the court’s request for briefing before a decision is made on reviewing the case. In the meantime, let us continue to hold all involved in prayer, to love our neighbor, and to do the work God has called us to do.”
On April 5, 2018, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals issued a 178-page opinion in favor of the loyal Episcopalians of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. In a decision authored by the Chief Justice, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s 2015 judgment for the breakaway parties and held that the loyal Episcopalians are entitled to control both the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and its Corporation.
The breakaway group appealed that ruling to the Texas Supreme Court, and the loyal Episcopal parties’ conditionally cross-appealed, seeking additional relief.
This is only the most recent development in property disputes that have embroiled the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth since 2008 when an overwhelming majority of the diocese voted to leave the Episcopal Church and subsequently joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Both the breakaway group and the remaining members of the original diocese call themselves the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and are seeking control and ownership of more than $100 million in church property.
In 2011, a judge ruled that all property should stay under the control of the members of the diocese who remained with the Episcopal Church, a decision that was made based on a line of argument that state laws should defer to the rules of hierarchical religious institutions, such as the Episcopal Church which has a rule that property is not owned by the diocese but by the denomination. In this line of thinking, the Episcopal Church has the authority to recognize who represents the diocese.
Four years later, in 2015, the Texas Supreme Court overturned the original ruling and ordered the judge to rehear the case based on rules that govern non-religious organizations, which resulted in a ruling in favor of the breakaway diocese instead.
Last spring, however, the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth reversed the decision again, claiming that the lower court overstepped its bounds in the previous ruling and naming the remaining diocese as the authority in control of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. The breakaway diocese has petitioned for a review of this decision.
This most recent announcement, published on the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’s website last week, notes that the Texas State Supreme Court is currently deciding whether to take up the review of the earlier decision. Deadlines for filing briefs in the case are in March and April, after which time the Texas Supreme Court will decide whether or not to review the earlier decisions.
As the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth continues in their property battle, other similar fights around the Episcopal Church have continued as well. This past June, the US Supreme Court declined to hear the case of a South Carolina property dispute, leaving the South Carolina Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, the remaining diocese.