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

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.


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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

Eric Bonetti

Paul Powers

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. 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

Paul Powers

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 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

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