Local Episcopalians hoping to reclaim millions of dollars in church property, which is now controlled by those who split six years ago from the national Episcopal Church, are taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Leaders of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth who remain faithful to the U.S. Episcopal Church filed a petition Thursday for a writ of certiorari with the nation’s highest court.
The petition asks the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision of the Texas Supreme Court on Aug. 30, 2013, overturning a Fort Worth lower court’s ruling in January 2011 that awarded property and holdings in the 24-county diocese to those loyal to the national church.
The Texas Supreme Court called for a rehearing on property matters in Judge John Chupp’s 141st District Court based on “neutral principles” of Texas law. The “deference” principles used in the earlier decision gave weight to the hierarchical structure of the U.S. Episcopal Church and its claim of ownership of all church properties.
Fort Worth Bishop Jack Iker and his group broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2008, claiming the national church had strayed from biblical and traditional church principles in many areas, including the ordination of gays and lesbians. His group is now affiliated with Anglican Church in North America.
While friendships have been fractured and feelings hurt because of the split, church property matters have been in the forefront ever since.
When the split occurred, Iker allowed church members to vote on whether to leave or stay in the national denomination. Those in the majority got to stay in their church property. Those in the minority had to leave their church buildings.
Now those whose who ended up in the minority on both sides of the doctrinal dispute worship in rented quarters, including schools, theaters, storefronts and space in churches of other denominations.
Most of the 56 congregations in the diocese chose to leave the national church.
Others join to file petition
The Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas and officials from the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo joined in the filing of the petition with U.S. Supreme Court.
A statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth filing the petition with the U.S. Supreme Court stated that both dioceses “have suffered from breakaway factions that swore to uphold The Episcopal Church before breaking ties and claiming to take historic Episcopal names, churches and property with them.”
Both the Fort Worth diocese and the Diocese of Northwest Texas, the statement continued, “had won summary judgments from the trial courts under 100 years of Texas law before the Texas Supreme Court changed the rules of the game and undid decades-old interchurch arrangements.”
The petition to the high court asks, among other things, whether “retroactive application of the neutral-principles approach infringes free-exercise [of religious] rights.”
Bishop Rayford B. High Jr., leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth which filed the petition said: “This request … is but one of many pieces necessary to our work to resolve this dispute that has disrupted the Episcopal community in this diocese. We remain confident that eventually we will recover the exclusive rights to use our historic names and properties …”
Iker’s group confident
Iker’s group, which also claims to the be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, said in a statement that in order to speed up matters it would not file a response to the petition unless asked to do so by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The statement added that historically the U.S. Supreme Court “agrees to review only 1 in 100 of certiorari petitions.”
The attorney’s for Iker’s group said they believe there is little chance the case will be reviewed, including because “there is no final judgment yet” and the Supreme Court “has no power to review issues of Texas law unless there is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.”
The petition, the statement from Iker’s group declared, would not affect the date for a rehearing in Chupp’s court, which has been scheduled for Dec. 17.