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Church goes to higher court

Newport congregation wants court’s opinion on whether Constitution protects its break from Episcopal Church.

May 05, 2009|By Brianna Bailey

St. James Anglican Church will take its battle to keep its Via Lido campus after a contentious break with the Episcopal Church to the United States Supreme Court, the Newport Beach congregation announced Tuesday.

The church will ask the court to resolve whether the 1st Amendment of the Constitution protects church property ownership. In the case, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles claims it has a right to keep St. James’ Newport Beach church after it left the Episcopal Church in 2004 over differing views on theology and homosexuality. The California Supreme Court ruled in favor of the diocese in January.

The case raises questions about St. James’ constitutionally protected religious freedoms, said John Eastman, dean of Chapman University School of Law.

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“By taking their church away that makes it hard for them to practice their religion,” Eastman said.

A constitutional law scholar who once served as a law clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, Eastman has agreed to take the St. James case.

“I think there’s a decent chance that the court will take it up,” Eastman said. “This is a case of consequence not just to the Episcopal Church, but to all sorts of churches that have loose affiliations with national organizations.”

St. James has until May 26 to file with the Supreme Court, and has already set up www.steadfastinfaith.org in support of their push to get the court to take up the case. The church expects to get an answer on whether the high court will hear the property dispute by September or October, Eastman said. The court could reach a decision as early as summer 2010 if it decides take up the matter. St. James also continues to pursue its case in Orange County Superior Court.

Attorney John Shiner, who represents the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, said he hadn’t reviewed St. James’ grounds for taking the case to the Supreme Court, but said he thought it unlikely the court would hear the matter.

“I don’t want to speculate, but it seems remote that the U.S. Supreme Court would take the case,” Shiner said.

St. James became one of three conservative Southern California parishes that placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a Ugandan bishop after the Episcopal Church consecrated a gay bishop in 2003. Other Episcopal bishops began sanctioning gay marriages about the same time.

The break led to a bitter and highly publicized property dispute over whether the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles or the St. James’ congregation owned the white, stucco church, which stands across the street from Newport Harbor on the Balboa Peninsula.


Reporter BRIANNA BAILEY may be reached at (714) 966-4625 or at brianna.bailey@latimes.com.

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