Texas Supreme Court overturns lower court decision in dispute between Episcopal groups

Posted Friday, Aug. 30, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The Texas Supreme Court on Friday narrowly overturned a summary judgment in the dispute over property between the two groups that claim to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

The 5-4 opinion was handed down Friday in Austin. The high court remanded the case to 141st District Court in Fort Worth “for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.”

The Rev. Jack Leo Iker, bishop of a group that left the national Episcopal church, said his members were glad to learn of the ruling.

“In sum, while today’s opinions are not a final victory, they indicate that a final victory is only a matter of time,” Iker said in the statement.

The dispute began in 2008 when Iker and most of the 56 congregations in the Fort Worth diocese chose to leave the national church because of disagreements that included the ordination of a gay bishop.

Iker’s group continues to call itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Those who remain with the national church use the same name.

The Iker group claimed the assets of parishes that voted to leave the Episcopal Church. The group that stayed with the national church sued in district court, claiming that all the assets belong to the national church, including St. Andrews Episcopal Church in downtown Fort Worth.

In January 2011, 141st District Judge John Chupp in Fort Worth agreed with the national church and ordered Iker’s group to “surrender all Diocesan property as well as control of the Diocese Corporation” and “not to hold themselves out as leaders of the Diocese.”

Chupp’s summary judgment ruled that the national church is a hierarchal church with authority over its dioceses and other subgroups.

The church has stated that its “Dennis Canon” allows it to claim local church property. It states that all property is “held in trust for this Church and the Diocese.”

According to the canon, the trust doesn’t limit the power and authority of a local Episcopal organization as along as it “remains a part of, and subject to this Church and its Constitution and Canons.”

The Iker group countered that the trust described in the canon does not contain language declaring that it is irrevocable.

According to the Supreme Court’s majority opinion released Friday, the Iker group asserted that the canon “does not create a trust under Texas Law, but that even if it does, it was revocable and the Diocese revoked it” when it amended its own canons.

The justices also noted that they addressed similar flaws in an earlier case, Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas.

In it, they said the canon “simply does not contain language making the trust expressly irrevocable. ... Even if the canon could be read to imply the trust was irrevocable, that is not good enough under Texas law.”

Joining the majority opinion were Justices Phil Johnson, Nathan Hecht, Paul Green, Eva Guzman and Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson. The dissenters were Justices Don Willett, Debra Lehrmann, Jeffrey Boyd and John Phillip Devine.

Bishop Rayford B. High Jr., leader of the group that stayed with the national church, said, “While it is a disappointment not to have a definitive decision, as followers of Jesus Christ, we live in hope. I am convinced that we are right in our affirmation that we are the continuing Diocese of Fort Worth and that I am its bishop.”

High also expressed hope for church unity: “We hold all Episcopalians in our prayers, as well as former Bishop Iker and his colleagues, and we bid your prayers as we move forward.”

This story includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Bill Miller, 817-390-7684 Twitter: @Bill_MillerST

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