By James W. Cushing
Special to the Legal
Over the last several years, there have been a number of cases involving the Episcopal Church and/or its dioceses and/or its parishes and disputes over ownership of church property. Specifically, as the Episcopal Church as a whole has become more theologically/doctrinally progressive, various parishes and dioceses that espouse a more conservative view have been breaking off from it and, sometimes, attempting to take their real estate with them.
There have been some local disputes in the Episcopal Church in the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas (e.g.: Moyer v. Bennison, Case No.: 2002-07147; Moyer v. Bennison, Case No.: 2002-16553; In re the Church of the Good Shepard Rosemont, Pennsylvania, Case No.: 09-0609) regarding the property and employment dispute between the parish of Good Shepherd in Rosemont, Pa., and its priest, Father David Moyer, against the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, and in Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas regarding the property of the Church of Saint James the Less (e.g.: In re Church of Saint James the Less, 585 Pa. 428 (2005). In these matters, the court ruled in favor of the diocese under the long-standing precedent that property of a parish is ultimately owned by the hierarchical church.
Two of these recent property disputes between parishes and their dioceses have finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court, one from Georgia and another from Connecticut. The matter from Connecticut (Episcopal Church v. Gauss, Case No.: UWY-CV08-4020456-S, in Waterbury, New Haven County Court) is an interesting one, as it involves the parish of Bishop Seabury Anglican Church, which was formed before the establishment of the Episcopal Church itself. Its argument was essentially that, as it was formed before the existence of the Episcopal Church, voluntarily entered the Episcopal Church and never received contributions from either its local diocese or the national Episcopal Church, it should own the real estate the parish uses. Therefore, due to its virtual independence, it argued that it should remain independent and free to disaffiliate with its property in tow. The Connecticut courts, like the Pennsylvania court above, ruled against the parish, holding that the parish is owned by the diocese. The parish appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and, in early June 2012, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, cementing the lower court’s decision that Bishop Seabury Anglican Church does not own its property and cannot take it when it separates from its diocese and the Episcopal Church.
The type of litigation described above has unique circumstances elevating the dispute beyond the parish and diocese in a matter involving the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh. As opposed to individual parishes seeking to disaffiliate from the Diocese of Pittsburgh, the diocese itself is seeking to separate from the Episcopal Church. Although there is significant precedent as to the relationship of a parish’s property to its diocese, the question of the relationship of a diocese’s property to the national Episcopal Church is generally a matter of first impression. As the Diocese of Pittsburgh and other dioceses (e.g.: the Diocese of San Joaquin, Calif., and the Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas) weigh their litigation options, it is clear that this area of the law is developing rapidly and it will be interesting how the courts will ultimately resolve these property disputes.