Ongoing updates with excerpts from the opinion.
Judge Deena R. Calabrese of the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas has ruled on behalf of the Diocese of Ohio in its case against five breakaway congregations. The court wrote:
It is tempting to conflate a litigation’s file size with its complexity. This case presents that enticement. Nevertheless, despite the sheer volume of submissions from the parties–dozens of pages of cross motions for summary judgment and supplemental authority and thousands of pages of appendices, this case is straightforward. For the reasons discussed below, the Court finds and concludes that Plaintiffs are entitled to partial summary judgment and that Defendants must therefore “surrender the church keys.” The church property is question is held in trust for the benefit of Plaintiffs Episcopal Diocese of Ohio and The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.
If a church is hierarchical the First Amendment requires courts to “defer to the resolution of issues of religious doctrine or polity by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization.” … Critically, once “[h]aving found a hierarchical relationship”, courts are likewise “authorize[d] to look beyond deeds and articles of incorporation to church constitutions and similar documents.
Plaintiffs, aided by a heavy load of internal church documents and relevant case law, have conclusively established that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical in nature…. Defendants’ argument to the contrary consists of footnotes in various briefs remarking that “Defendants do not in concede in any way that the ECUSA is a hierarchical church.” ….
Plaintiffs correctly note that in the summary judgment context a party’s mere statement that it does not concede a disputed point is arguably tantamount to doing precisely that. Once plaintiffs demonstrated the lack of any fact issue regarding the Episcopal Church’s hierarchical structure, it was Defendants’ burden to present competent admissible evidence to the contrary. Their one-sentence reference to an affidavit is not sufficient, particularly where Defendants have not produced a single court decision supporting their position on this issue.
This Court agrees with multiple tribunals that have applied the neutral principles analysis and held the Dennis Canon “dispositive.”
An interesting sidelight of the opinion is Footnote 5 on Page 5. Judge Calabrese notes that at one point in their argument, the breakaway congregations cite but do not develop a lengthy affidavit filed in the case by Mary McReynolds, as evidence that the Episcopal Church is not hierarchical:
McReynolds’ affidavit spans 128 paragraphs over the course of 63 pages, not counting exhibits. Defendants nevertheless neglect to offer any meaningful narrative development of her testimony in their various briefs, including testimony regarding whether the ECUSA is hierarchical. This might be taken as evidencing some lack of faith in McReynolds claim that the Episcopal Church is not hierarchical.
McReynolds is the lawyer for five of the breakaway congregations in Virginia. The Virginia cases head back to court after Easter.