(Photo: Diocese of Fort Worth)
The Texas Supreme Court will determine whether or not a diocese that broke away from The Episcopal Church four years ago holds the right to the 52 church properties in its territory.
The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, led by conservative bishop Rt. Rev. Jack Leo Iker, appealed a lower court decision giving them 30 days to give the disputed property to The Episcopal Church.
Arguments for the case were heard in October and presently both the departed diocese and its continuing Episcopal counterpart await the court's decision.
After leaving The Episcopal Church, the Fort Worth Diocese joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), a newer and more conservative member of the global Anglican Communion.
Suzanne Gill, director of Communications for The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (within ACNA), told The Christian Post that the diocese cut its ties with TEC in November 2008 at a diocesan convention.
"At that time an 80 percent supermajority of clergy and elected lay representatives ratified the actions of the previous year's convention to remove all references to TEC from the diocesan Constitution and Canons," said Gill.
"The move was taken as a last resort after efforts to stay in communion with a denomination that had drifted away from historic faith and order over a number of years."
According to Gill, both the diocese and the national church "asked the Texas Supreme Court to settle the case" rather than make "a general ruling" that sends "the case back to trial court in Fort Worth."
Not long after disassociating from The Episcopal Church over theological differences like the issue of homosexuality and female ordination, the Fort Worth Diocese (ACNA) was sued by TEC over ownership of the estimated $100 million worth of church property.
In January 2011, Judge John P. Chupp of the 141st District Court of Texas ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church and ordered the Fort Worth Diocese (ACNA) to "surrender all Diocesan property as well as control of the Diocese Corporation" and "not to hold themselves out as leaders of the Diocese."
The latter demand came due to The Episcopal Church having its own "continuing" diocese, named "Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth." With the Rt. Rev. Rayford High serving as bishop, the Fort Worth Diocese (within TEC) states on its website that Bishop Iker of the Fort Worth Diocese (ACNA) is "no longer a bishop in the Episcopal Church" and "was succeeded by the Rt. Rev. Ted Gulick."
Gill of Fort Worth Diocese (ACNA) told CP that the "continuing Episcopal" presence in the diocese was a small one nevertheless recognized by The Episcopal Church as larger than it really is.
"In some cases, as few as one or two individuals are recognized by TEC as representing an entire congregation of the diocese (the other members and property having stayed with Bishop Iker)," said Gill.
"Arrangements have been made for several of these micro-congregations to worship together, so that a dozen or two may worship as one on Sunday, in the names of three or four churches. This is true in Parker County and Wichita Falls, for example."
Two Perspectives on Legal Ownership
Lacking an official deadline, the Texas Supreme Court is presently considering two different property arguments by The Episcopal Church and the ACNA Diocese.
The ACNA Diocese argued that their right to the property stems from the "neutral principles" standard established in 1979 by the U.S. Supreme Court. This standard decides ownership by looking at the property records.
According to Gill, the Fort Worth Diocese was founded in 1982 without any property; instead their possessions were owned by a "Corporation, which made no statement of obligation or conformity to TEC."
"This arrangement was approved and accepted by TEC leadership at the time. Fifteen years later, to make matters absolutely clear, the diocesan convention explicitly denied the Dennis Canon trust," said Gill.
"Judge Chupp's ruling, if upheld, would call into question every incorporated nonprofit organization and every trust arrangement in the state."
The Episcopal Church, by contrast, argued that their right to the property comes from the "deference" standard, also established by the U.S. Supreme Court and Church Canon I.7.4.
Known as the "Dennis Canon," I.7.4 states in part that "All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located."
The "Dennis Canon" has frequently been invoked by The Episcopal Church in property disputes with departing congregations across the country and typically with success in court.
Katie Sherrod, director of Communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (TEC), told The Christian Post about the many cases that TEC has won regarding property disputes with breakaway congregations.
"The simple reason for this overwhelming consensus is that when parties promise to abide by Church rules, and they are given access to church titles and church property as a result of those promises, they cannot use civil courts to break those commitments later if they decide to leave their Church," said Sherrod.
"The Episcopal Church is judicially recognized as being a hierarchical church, as is the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran Missouri Synod, and many other churches."