In a Fresno courtroom Monday, Anglican Bishop John-David Schofield's presence loomed large in the long, legal battle between the U.S. Episcopal Church and the breakaway Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.
Schofield, who died in October, is a key witness in a Fresno County Superior Court civil trial that will determine who owns dozens of pieces of property -- the Anglican diocese or the national Episcopal Church?
The bishop gave his videotaped deposition in late 2011, long after he led 40 of 47 parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin away from the national Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Diocese of the San Joaquin.
The video was played Monday on a big- creen to a packed courtroom, with many of the onlookers supporters of Schofield. Among them was the Rev. Gordon Kamai, pastor of Anglican Christ Church in Oakhurst, who said he feared the national Episcopal Church will just sell the property for non-Christian purposes. "It belongs to the congregations," he said.
In December 2007, an overwhelming number of the diocese's members voted to split from the national church because of disagreements over such issues as same-sex marriage and the ordination of gay bishops. The Anglican diocese holds to a more conservative theology.
Three months later, the national Episcopal Church removed Schofield as bishop of the diocese and selected the Rev. Jerry Lamb as his successor of the seven remaining parishes. Lamb asked Schofield to relinquish all diocese's property, but Schofield declined, leading to the lawsuit a month later.
At stake is church property from Bakersfield to Stockton, including St. James Cathedral in east-central Fresno and St. Mary's Anglican Church in Sunnyside, and the financial accounts that Schofield's members took with them.
The remaining seven parishes include the Holy Family Episcopal Church in northeast Fresno.
On Monday, lawyers said the case involves complex issues of freedom of religion and to associate and property rights. They also noted that the lawsuit has bounced from Fresno County Superior Court to the Fifth District Court of Appeal and back to Superior Court.
In his deposition, Schofield said the diocese's majority had a right to break away and take its assets. That's because the national church never owned the diocese's property or had legal title to it, the bishop said.
But lawyers for the national church said Schofield had no right to transfer ownership of church property to the Anglican diocese because he was no longer the bishop.
A year ago, Judge Jeffrey Hamilton rejected a motion by the Episcopal Church that could have meant victory over the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.
In a seven-page written ruling, Hamilton suggested the Episcopal Church may simply have failed to submit the documents necessary to prove its case.
Now the decision is up to Judge Donald S. Black, who presided over a one-week court trial that culminated in Schofield's deposition. Black gave lawyers until March 17 to file written legal briefs and responses. Once he reads the documents, Black will rule on who is the rightful owner.
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