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California Appeals Court Recognizes Episcopal Church’s Determinations in San Joaquin Litigation – Decision Strongly Affirms Position of Fort Worth Episcopalians

On November 18, 2010, the Court of Appeal of the State of California, Fifth Appellate District, issued its long-awaited opinion on the appeal from the partial judgment rendered in the dispute between the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and its former bishop. The decision strongly affirms the position of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth in its pending litigation with its former bishop and other former diocesan officials. A copy of the opinion and a news release from the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin are listed to the right of this article.

In a narrowly drawn decision, the Court ruled that the trial court erred in declaring Provisional Bishop Jerry Lamb to be the bishop of the diocese—but only because The Episcopal Church had already determined that "ecclesiastical fact" and thus the trial court had no jurisdiction to dispute or decide identity issues of who was bishop of the diocese or the continuity of the diocese as an entity within the Episcopal Church.

Thus the opinion strongly affirms the position of the Episcopalians in the Diocese of Fort Worth that The Episcopal Church’s undisputed recognition of Bishop Edwin F. Gulick, Jr. and then Bishop C. Wallis Ohl as bishops of the continuing Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth formed in 1982, and its recognition of the continuing diocese within The Episcopal Church, is binding on the local trial courts that will decide which faction—those who remained in The Episcopal Church or those who left it—has the authority and right to use, possess and control the real and personal property, funds, records, names, and seals of the diocese and its 55 parishes and missions.

The California court reasoned that:

"The dispute set forth in the request for declaratory relief in the first cause of action, namely, whether Schofield or Lamb is the incumbent Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, is quintessentially ecclesiastical. Accordingly, the trial court erred in adjudicating that cause of action and, upon proper motion, must dismiss that cause of action.

Three facts are established by the record and are, in any event, "ecclesiastical facts" that the courts have no jurisdiction to adjudicate. First, before and through January 11, 2008, Schofield was the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin; on that day, his powers as Episcopal Bishop were suspended by the national church. Second, after March 29, 2008, Lamb was the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, duly recognized by the national church. Third, at some point Schofield became the Anglican Bishop presiding over an Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America. In further proceedings in the trial court, these facts may be relevant to the court’s consideration of the issues before it, but the validity of such removals and appointments are not subject to further adjudication by the trial court. The continuity of the diocese as an entity within the Episcopal Church is likewise a matter of ecclesiastical law, finally resolved, for civil law purposes, by the Episcopal church's recognition of Lamb as the bishop of that continuing entity." Opinion, page 9 (emphasis added).

These facts are virtually identical to the undisputed "ecclesiastical facts" that are now before local trial courts in Fort Worth. "First, before and through [December 5, 2008,] [Iker] was the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of [Fort Worth]; on that day, his powers as Episcopal Bishop were suspended by the national church." "Second, after [February 7, 2009] [Bishop Edwin F. Gulick, Jr]. was the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Fort Worth, duly recognized by the national church." "Third, at some point [Iker] became the Anglican Bishop presiding over an Anglican Diocese of [Fort Worth], affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America."

Thus the Church’s determinations of which is the "real" Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth formed in 1982, and who is the "real" incumbent bishop of that diocese and who are the "real" trustees of the diocesan corporation, will determine disposition of the disputed property that has been acquired for the ministry of The Episcopal Church for more than 170 years before Bishop Iker and others left the Church and its diocese.

The San Joaquin Background

These facts may sound familiar.

At the urging of Bishop John-David Schofield, in 2007 a majority of the delegates at the Convention of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin purported to amend its governing documents to leave The Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone. The Presiding Bishop deposed (removed) Bishop Schofield as a bishop in the Episcopal Church. The loyal Episcopalians of the diocese soon reorganized the diocese, electing a new bishop and other leaders, all recognized by The Episcopal Church.

Schofield and his followers refused to surrender possession of church property and funds of the diocese and its parishes and missions. Schofield claimed to continue to have authority as incumbent bishop of the diocese and therefore president of the trust and president and chair of the diocesan foundation. The reorganized diocese, with The Episcopal Church, sued Schofield and other leaders for declaratory relief, as well as related causes of action for injunctive relief, breach of fiduciary duty, conversion, ejectment, fraudulent conveyance, and quiet title.

This appeal dealt only with the declaratory relief on the issue of who is bishop of the continuing Diocese of San Joaquin. The diocese’s other claims and property issues will be decided by the trial court.

Legal Basis for Deciding Church Property Disputes

The court affirmed that, though courts do not have jurisdiction to decide who is the bishop, courts do have jurisdiction to determine disposition of church property.

Civil courts are often called upon to resolve disputes concerning ownership of church property. (Citations omitted.) Religious institutions and their members are equally entitled as other members of society to seek resolution of property disputes in civil court. (Citations omitted.) In resolving such disputes, the First Amendment requires that civil courts must take care not to adjudicate questions of religious doctrine. (Citations omitted.) But if the dispute does not involve the ownership of property — if it concerns issues such as church doctrine, membership, credentials of clergy, discipline of clergy and members, or church Organizations and organization — the matter is to be left to internal decision-making processes of the church itself. (Citations omitted.)

For more detail on how these principles apply to the facts and issues in the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, see Local Episcopal Parties’ Motion for Partial Summary Judgment. The motion, along with that of The Episcopal Church, is set for hearing on January 14, 2011 in the 141st District Court in Fort Worth.



California Appeals Court Opinion, issued 11/18/10

Diocese of San Joaquin press release



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