Episcopal property dispute headed back to Tarrant County court

04/24/2014 6:12 PM

04/24/2014 9:52 PM

The ongoing property dispute between the two groups claiming to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth will apparently be reheard sooner than later.

State district Judge John Chupp on Thursday denied a motion that would have delayed court proceedings until a planned appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is finished, essentially meaning the case could be reheard as early as September.

In dispute is millions of dollars’ worth of church property in the 24-county diocese.

Bishop Jack Iker, whose group left the national Episcopal Church over a theological dispute, described the ruling as “excellent” and “means that after five years we can move forward toward resolution.”

Chupp also granted a motion that returned a $100,000 cash bond to Iker’s group, which is now aligned with the Anglican Church in North America and still claims to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

The other group, led by Bishop Rayford High, contends that it is the real Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth since it is recognized by the New York-based Episcopal Church, the official U.S. province of the worldwide Anglican Communion.

High said Thursday’s ruling was not unexpected.

“This won’t change the ultimate outcome one way or another,” High said.

‘Very painful for everybody’

The schism began in 2008 when Iker and most of the 56 congregations in the sprawling diocese chose to leave the national church over doctrinal differences such as the ordination of women and the acceptance of gay and lesbian priests.

A property dispute followed, with Iker’s group claiming the assets of parishes that left the national church. The group loyal to the national church, however, contended that all assets in the diocese should remain with the national church and filed suit, setting off the ongoing legal dispute that has split congregations.

In an article earlier this month in the Star-Telegram, longtime church members on both sides of the dispute talked about how difficult the split has been.

“It's just very, very painful for everybody,” said Judy Marsee Roach, who was a member of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Arlington before the split forced her out of the building she had been worshiping in for 46 years. “It just tore our church apart. I wrote to Bishop Iker before the final split. I said: ‘Please, please, this has been my home for all these years. Don't split our church in two.’ ”

Roach now attends Theatre Arlington St. Alban’s, a small congregation that remains loyal to the national Episcopal church.

Another appeal planned

Thursday’s decision was the latest in a series of legal rulings, which started in 2011 in Chupp’s 141st District Court in Tarrant County. Chupp initially ruled that because the national Episcopal Church is a hierarchical body, the property should go to the group still loyal to the church.

Iker’s group appealed to the Texas Supreme Court and was required to post the $100,000 bond, along with required financial reports, as protection for church holdings. When the state Supreme Court granted the appeal and ordered a rehearing based on the principles of Texas law, Iker’s group filed the motion to return the $100,000 bond.

On March 21, the state Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the national Episcopal Church asking that the rehearing be denied.

High said on Thursday that the Episcopal Church will move forward with its appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last month declined to intervene in a similar dispute between Episcopal congregations in Virginia.

“We will just move on and continue our litigation strategy to recover our church property,” High said. “We are also not being consumed by the litigation. We’ve been working with folks to focus on ministry and mission of our dioceses.”

In a news release, Iker said his group “is delighted to be on a path toward the conclusion of a lengthy and costly legal process. This is encouragement to us, and we look forward to the day when all legal proceedings are behind us and we can get on with the mission of the Church without the distraction of litigation.”

The rehearing on property rights will be held in Chupp’s court and will be based on “neutral principles” of law concerning trusts and property ownership under Texas law. The earlier hearing was based on “deference principles,” giving more weight to rules governing a hierarchical church body.

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

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