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St. James loses court case

Church and property belong to the national Episcopal Church, majority rules, based on legal documents.

January 05, 2009|By Joseph Serna

A Newport Beach parish’s fight to keep church property it claims belongs to the congregation may go as high as the U.S. Supreme Court after the state Supreme Court rejected its argument, an attorney for parishioners of St. James Anglican Church said Monday.

“I do know that the people of St. James have continued to reflect upon their decision in 2004 to change religious affiliation and still have a very strong view,” said Eric Sohlgren, representing the parish. “We’ll just have to see how it unfolds in the courts and where we go from here.”

The California State Supreme Court ruled Monday that St. James worshipers do not own the church property they’ve worshiped on for more than 50 years because when they decided to split from the general Episcopal Church almost five years ago, it violated an agreement with the larger church and forfeited the rights to the property.

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In a 6-1 decision, the court ruled that the larger Episcopal Church owned the property when Newport Beach’s St. James Parish joined the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 1949 and agreed to the larger Episcopal Church’s rules.

“Although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the great church and to be bound by its governing documents,” wrote Justice Ming Chin. “When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it.”

“The ruling is final, conclusive, definitive,” said John Shiner, who represents the diocese. “I certainly think it’s a decision that will have considerable precedent value on other courts not only throughout the state but throughout the nation.”

The court’s decision has an immediate impact in Long Beach, La Crescenta and North Hollywood, too, where members realigned themselves with the Anglican Province of Uganda, like St. James’ worshipers. Church members split with the larger Episcopal Church after it ordained openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire in 2003. A dispute over biblical authority and interpretation, including the congregation’s view that the diocese had become too liberal regarding the divinity of Jesus, led to the August 2004 split.

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