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Court gives church to diocese

St. James members’ attorney says he might ask state Supreme Court for a clarification.

March 29, 2010|By Joseph Serna

The state Court of Appeal in Orange County has ruled 2 to 1 that the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles owns the St. James Anglican Church in Newport Beach — not breakaway congregants who left the diocese in 2004 after it decided to allow gay bishops to serve.

The court upheld a state Supreme Court decision that the diocese owned the property on 32nd Street in Newport Beach, not members who continue to use it. The congregation laid claim to the church after it disagreed with the decision to allow gay bishops.

“Stunned is an understatement,” said attorney Eric Sohlgren, who represents church members. “This is an outrageous and unprecedented decision that has absolutely no basis in California law.”

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The diocese could not be reached for comment.

Sohlgren suggested that he’ll take the case back to the state Supreme Court for a clarification of its 2009 ruling in hopes of getting permission from the justices to bring the case before a jury trial.

What’s at issue is what Presiding Appeal Justice David Sills and Associate Justice Eileen Moore ruled when they concluded that the diocese owned the disputed St. James Church last year.

After members broke away in 2004, the diocese sued for the property, claiming it owned it, not the congregation. An Orange County Superior Court judge dismissed the case, which did not go before a jury.

The diocese pleaded its case to the Court of Appeal, which ruled there was a legitimate issue to argue in court. But St. James members appealed that decision to the state Supreme Court.

Last year, the Supreme Court sided with the diocese, concluding it owned the property.

As Court of Appeal Associate Justice Richard Fybel wrote in his dissenting opinion Friday, this is where he and his two colleagues part ways.

The Supreme Court did not rule who owned the property, but upheld the Court of Appeal’s decision that there should be a trial, Fybel said.

Following the high court ruling, the case was sent back down to Orange County Superior Court for trial. The diocese made a motion to dismiss the case, citing the Supreme Court ruling.

The judge agreed and threw the case out, and on Friday the Court of Appeal upheld that decision.

In essence, Fybel argued, his colleagues are misinterpreting the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Never before in California, he wrote, has an appeal to the court seeking a trial ended up with a ruling in the appellant’s favor, ending the case altogether.

The next step for the St. James’ congregation, if it chooses, would be to ask the state Supreme Court to clarify its 2009 ruling, Sohlgren said.


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