When the Episcopal Church ordained Gene Robinson as a Bishop, it threw several conservative congregations into a tizzy. Some were so upset about the idea of their church including an openly gay man in so high a position, that they announced that they would take their marbles and go elsewhere.
St. James parish in Newport Beach was one such church. Now they have found that it just isn’t that easy. The Supreme Court of California has informed St. James parish that they can go elsewhere, but they have to leave their marbles behind.
The California Supreme Court ruled that the 2.4-million-member national church, and not a local parish in that state, owns a church building and the land on which it sits, property which members of the congregation said belonged to them when they left the church.
This decision upheld the 2007 reversal of a 2005 judicial decision granting the property to the local congregation. 2007 was a sad year for the church; also in that year Rev. Praveen Bunyan, the priest who led the disaffiliation, resigned his duties over inappropriate attention paid to a female parishioner.
This unanimous Supreme Court decision is, no doubt, discouraging to the parish that lost its marbles. But it is definitely encouraging to the Episcopal Church, especially as it may direct that the multi-million dollar assets of the San Juaquin Diocese in Fresno remain under the control of the denomination, and are not at the discretion of the break-away Bishop.
Although the deeds showed that the local church owned the property, the parish had agreed to be part of the greater Episcopal Church of the United States and to be bound by that church’s rules, the court said. Those rules said local churches hold property in trust for the greater denomination.
“The local church agreed and intended to be part of a larger entity and to be bound by the rules and governing documents of that greater entity,” Chin wrote.
So it now seems, at least in California, that it may actually cost chuches something to stand by their convictions.