Church asks Calif. justices to clarify a recent ruling

Legal News Line Jan. 26, 2009, 11:00am

Ming Chin

The Rev. Rick Warren

SAN FRANCISCO (Legal Newsline) - While several national leaders of religious denominations hailed a recent California Supreme Court ruling, one church that broke away from its leadership has asked the court to clarify its ruling.

The parish of St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach, Calif., filed a petition on Friday with the high court asking for a rehearing of its Jan. 5 decision that blocked the church from keeping its physical location since breaking with the denomination.

Despite most of the financial support for the churches stemming from local donations, three Southern California Episcopal churches in California that split from the national Episcopal church will have to return their houses of worship following the court's ruling.

"When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it," Associate Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin wrote in the unanimous ruling.

But an attorney for St. James Church said the organization owns the deed to the building "free and clear." The most recent court action fulfills his pledge to continue the legal fight.

"The Episcopal Church hasn't contributed a dime to St. James in 50 years," attorney Eric Sohlgren said in published reports.

But the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, the Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, said church buildings and other property rightfully belong to the national church as "the product of legacies of generations before us," according to published reports.

The decision cast a shadow over other church denominations with congregations threatening to split or leave the larger organization, as many lawyers say the case sets a precedence that would apply.

Last month about 700 individual churches left the Episcopal Church to form a conservative North American Episcopal Church. The rift followed the decision to appoint an only gay bishop to the Episcopal hierarchy. The state court's ruling could impact the conservative churches' legal right to continue to worship in their buildings.

Other denominations are encountering increasing division over the issue of gays and lesbians being allowed into the leadership of the church. Representatives from the United Methodist Church, Presbyterians and Seventh-day Adventists argued in support of the national Episcopal Church during the hearing.

"The other denominations that were with us were very pleased (with the ruling)," the Rt. Rev. Jon Bruno of the Episcopal Church said.

Evangelical pastor Rick Warren, who gave the opening prayer at President Barack Obama's inauguration last week, offered to open the campus of his mega church to those from the churches who might lose their buildings.

Warren, who drew criticism from many liberal leaders because of his support for a ban on same-sex marriages in California that passed in November, wrote a letter to 30 conservative Anglican leaders two days after the state Supreme Court's ruling.

"We stand in solidarity with them and with all orthodox, evangelical Anglicans," Warren wrote in an e-mail to Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine. "I offer the campus of Saddleback Church to any Anglican congregation who need a place to meet, or if you want to plant a new church congregation in south Orange County."

St. James Church said the state court should rehear the issue because in all previous court rulings, both sides have not been given the chance to fully present the merits of its case.

The court ruling issued by the state Supreme Court stated, "Both lower courts also decided the merits of the dispute over ownership of the local church - the trial court in favor of the local church and the Court of Appeal in favor of the general church. We will also decide this question, which the parties as well as various amici curiae have fully briefed."

But St. John's said the two lower court ruling did not all the evidence to be presented.

"The case is far from over yet," a conservative Episcopal Web site reported. "The first step, nevertheless, is to get the Supreme Court to acknowledge that it did not 'decide the case on the merits.' It should be an elementary concession for them to make, but we shall see."

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