The Texas Supreme Court has handed down two opinions regarding property disputes between The Episcopal Church and congregations who have withdrawn from the Church over doctrinal differences.
In 2006, The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd, a congregation in the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas, voted to amend the Church’s articles of incorporation and withdraw from communion with the Episcopal Church to establish an independent Anglican Church. The minority of members who remained loyal to the Episcopal Church brought a lawsuit to recover the Church property. The trial court sided against the congregation and granted summary judgment to The Episcopal Church.
Similarly, in 2008, the Diocese of Ft. Worth, led by Bishop Iker, voted to leave The Episcopal Church, and entered communion with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone. The Episcopal Church responded by appointing a replacement for Bishop Iker and laying claim to all Church property in the Diocese. Again, the trial court sided with the Episcopal Church. The Diocese appealed the Case, and the Texas Supreme Court reversed both judgments.
Both trial courts employed what is known as the deference approach to ecclesiastical matters. The method involves the court determining where the religious institution has placed legitimate authority and then respecting the decision of that office. The Texas Supreme Court, however, ruled that a distinction must be made between ecclesiastical matters such as membership, doctrine, and appointment of clergy, and secular matters such as incorporation, property ownership, and existence of trusts. When confronting issues of the latter nature, the court ruled that Justices should instead employ the neutral principles of law approach, which will allow issues of a secular nature to be decided under the same standards as any other secular matter.
The Court noted that it is clear the Episcopal hierarchy has authority over its members and property, however, the Episcopal Church requires individual Dioceses and parishes to be incorporated under existing state law. When the Diocese and parish voted to leave the Episcopal Church, they did so within the parameters established by their corporation’s by-laws and Texas State Law.
The Supreme Court therefore sent both cases back to their respective trial courts in order to determine which parties have the legal claim to the properties. Bishop Iker and the Diocese of Ft. Worth celebrated the decision and are confident that under the new standards they will prevail as the incorporated Diocese holds the title to all Church property located therein.
Bishop High, who is loyal to the Episcopal Church, also released a statement that included his conviction that “we are right in our affirmation that we are the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth and that I am its bishop.”
The congregation of the Church of the Good Shepherd also has reason to be optimistic as the Supreme Court noted that under the Parish’s articles of incorporation, “The power to alter, amend, or repeal the by-laws or to adopt new by-laws shall be vested in the members, if any, but such power maybe delegated by the members to the board of directors.” The presence of such a clause is a significant obstacle to the Episcopal Church’s claim of authority over a lawfully created Texas corporation.
This is episode is the latest in a string of legal battles between the Episcopal Church and dissenting orthodox believers. Like in Texas, controversies are continuing in South Carolina and Virginia.