Breakaway Anglican Church Takes Property Case to Supreme Court

The Anglican church at the center of a nationally publicized church property dispute with The Episcopal Church has filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking that it overturn the decision made by the California Supreme Court earlier this year.

In January, the California high court had ruled unanimously that St. James Church in Newport Beach and two other Southern California parishes that left The Episcopal Church cannot retain ownership of their church buildings and property after they pulled out of the 2.1 million-member U.S. church body in 2004.

The court determined that the property belongs to The Episcopal Church because the parishes agreed to abide by the mother church's rules, which include specific language about property ownership.

"When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it," Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin wrote for the seven-member court.

The legal team representing St. James, however, insists that no one can unilaterally impose a trust over someone else's property without their permission under longstanding law. They also argue that preferential treatment for certain denominations violates the U.S. Constitution.

"We will be arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that the California Supreme Court's interpretation of state law has violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution," commented Dr. John Eastman, a nationally recognized constitutional law scholar who has joined the legal team to pursue the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

"The California Supreme Court has given a preference to certain kinds of churches that claim to be hierarchical, that other churches and non-religious associations are not entitled to, and that violates the establishment clause. We will also be arguing that denying the local church community their ability to organize and hold title to their own building and conduct their religious services in a manner they see fit, this California decision violates their right to the free exercise of religion," Eastman added.

According to the legal team, a response from the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the St. James petition can be expected as early as October 2009. A decision could be reached as early as mid-2010.