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Fresno appeals court says Episcopal church properties must be returned

A Fresno appellate court has upheld a ruling that says St. James Cathedral in Fresno and 27 other properties taken by a breakaway Anglican church group must be returned to the national Episcopal Church.
A Fresno appellate court has upheld a ruling that says St. James Cathedral in Fresno and 27 other properties taken by a breakaway Anglican church group must be returned to the national Episcopal Church. Fresno Bee Staff Photo

A Fresno appellate court has upheld a ruling that says St. James Cathedral in Fresno and 27 other properties taken by a breakaway Anglican church group must be returned to the national Episcopal Church.

In 2014, Judge Donald S. Black ruled in Fresno Superior Court that the breakaway Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin led by Bishop John-David Schofield had no legal right to the properties that are worth tens of millions of dollars.

In his ruling, Black wrote that the properties were held in trust for the Episcopal Church and Schofield lacked authority to transfer the properties to the breakaway church.

Appellate justices Bert Levy, Donald R. Franson Jr. and Rosendo Peña Jr. concurred with Black’s ruling.

Continue to pray and remember God is in control.

Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin

In a memo to the congregation, Bishop Eric Menees of the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, based at St. James Cathedral, said he was disappointed in the 5th District Court of Appeal decision and noted that the appellate justices said Black had made some legal errors, but not enough to overturn his ruling.

“I am going to the Lord in prayer, seeking legal advice from our chancellors, and soliciting opinions from clergy and lay leaders with regards to possible avenues forward,” Menees wrote.

“Continue to pray and remember God is in control,” he added.

The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, which is based in Modesto, said its leadership will review the decision with Chancellor Michael Glass and “continue to plan and address any developments accordingly.” Episcopal Bishop David Rice, who became head of the diocese in March 2014, said: “I am urging the diocese to remain in a position of prayer for everyone involved as we continue to hear what the spirit is saying to the church.”

The 23-page appellate decision, made public this week, gives details of the dispute that began in 2007 when Schofield led 40 of 47 parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin away from the national Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin. 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 elected the Rev. Jerry Lamb as his successor of the seven remaining parishes. Lamb asked Schofield to relinquish all of the diocese’s property, but Schofield declined, leading to the lawsuit a month later.

The legal battle involves complex issues of freedom of religion and property rights.

The legal battle involves complex issues of freedom of religion and property rights. At stake are church properties from Bakersfield to Stockton, including St. James Cathedral at Cedar and Dakota avenues in central-east Fresno and the Episcopal Camp and Conference Center in Oakhurst.

The seven parishes that chose to stay with the Episcopal Church include the Holy Family Episcopal Church near Millbrook and Alluvial avenues in northeast Fresno.

In court papers, Schofield, who died in October 2013, and his breakaway members contend that the national Episcopal Church paid nothing for the properties’ acquisition, upkeep and maintenance over the past 50 years. In his 2011 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 no longer was the bishop.

I am urging the diocese to remain in a position of prayer for everyone involved as we continue to hear what the spirit is saying to the church.

Episcopal Bishop David Rice

In his ruling, Black wrote that individuals have the right to exercise freedom of religion and to leave and form a new church in another religious denomination. But, he said, the breakaway members cannot tell the Episcopal Church “that it no longer has a diocese in a particular geographical area such as San Joaquin.”

Black noted for the record that Schofield transferred the church properties into the “Anglican Diocese Holding Corporation,” an entity that was created solely to prevent the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin from having access to them.

The appellate justices concurred, writing that Schofield had no legal authority to transfer the property to his breakaway church since he was removed as bishop of the Episcopal diocese on March 12, 2008. Fifteen days later, Schofield began retitling the parcels of property and “granting them to The Anglican Bishop of San Joaquin,” the appellate ruling says. He then transferred the properties to the Anglican Diocese Holding Corp. to prevent “someone like Lamb” from claiming it, the appellate justices said.

Because Lamb was the bishop at the time, the appellate court said, he had control over the property held by the Episcopal Church.

“Therefore, Schofield did not have the power to make these purported transfers,” the appellate justices wrote.

The appellate decision does not become final for another 30 days. During that time, the Anglican diocese can ask the appellate court to reconsider its decision. After 30 days, the Anglican diocese can petition the state Supreme Court to rule on the dispute.

Pablo Lopez: 559-441-6434, @beecourts

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