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Ruling expected soon in Fort Worth Episcopal Diocese dispute

All Saints Episcopal Church in west Fort Worth has been separated from other churches in a dispute about church property. This photo was taken at the church on Feb. 7, 2009, as church leaders loyal to the national church gathered for a convention to reorganize the fractured diocese.
All Saints Episcopal Church in west Fort Worth has been separated from other churches in a dispute about church property. This photo was taken at the church on Feb. 7, 2009, as church leaders loyal to the national church gathered for a convention to reorganize the fractured diocese. Star-Telegram archives

A decision may be imminent on which of two rival groups claiming to be the true Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth should be awarded control of millions of dollars worth of property in the 24-county Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

At a hearing Friday before state District Judge John Chupp, both sides in the long-running dispute asked for partial summary judgments and each side gave proposed orders detailing why their group should win out.

“Essentially that means we are not going to have a jury trial,” said Suzanne Gill, a spokeswoman for the group led out of the national church by Bishop Jack Iker. “The judge will make his own decision.”

Frank Hill, an attorney for churches loyal to the national Episcopal Church, said rulings on most of the dispute could come this week.

One section of the dispute, involving property of All Saints Episcopal Church in west Fort Worth, should be decided separately, Chupp said.

“We didn‘t request the separate hearing,” Hill said, “but I expect Judge Chupp will enter orders on all the other claims and will carve out the All Saints claims and try them separately.”

Hill is attorney for All Saints and a number of other churches and missions that are loyal to the national church.

Gill said All Saints is a more complicated problem than other churches.

“I think he felt he could get a handle on what to do with the rest of the churches if he excluded All Saints,” Gill said.

Iker’s group broke away from the national church in 2008, based on several issues, including ordaining women and gays. A majority of the 56 congregations went with Iker’s group. Others loyal to the national church formed a reorganized diocese recognized by the New York-based national church.

The Iker group is now associated with Anglican Church in North America.

Bishop Rayford High, leader of the Fort Worth group loyal to the national church, sent a letter to parishioners telling of the hearing and Chupp’s pending decision.

“What happens now?” High wrote. “We will continue to do what God has called us to do, Christ’s ministry and mission in the 24 counties of Texas. Let me remind you of what a good job we are doing.”

When the split occurred, churches that sided with the national church remained in their church property. However, in many cases, including All Saints’, Iker’s group maintains that his group still has the right to the property, since it has never been officially released to the individual churches, Gill said.

“We offered to release property to four churches,” Gill said. “Only three took us up on it.” Trinity Episcopal Church in Fort Worth; St. Martin in the Fields in Keller; and St. Luke’s in Stephenville were given their property free and clear, she said.

St. Christopher’s of Fort Worth was also offered its property, but did not follow through with one stipulation made by Iker’s group, she said.

Several churches with congregations loyal to the national church occupy their church buildings, but could be in danger of losing the properties if Chupp rules in favor of Iker’s group, Gill said. Among them are St. Luke’s in the Meadow in Fort Worth; St. Elisabeth in River Oaks; and St. Stephen in Wichita Falls.

Katie Sherrod, a spokeswoman for the group loyal to the national church, said individual churches have the right to appeal regardless of what happens.

Chupp’s decision will receive wide attention throughout the national Episcopal community. Fort Worth is one of the largest property disputes in the nation among split groups of Episcopalians.

The dispute has been a legal roller coaster.

Episcopalians loyal to the national church were euphoric in 2011, when Chupp ruled in their favor. His ruling was based on “deferential principles,” meaning that when property disputes arise the state laws should defer to the rules of the hierarchical institution.

Iker’s group successfully appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which called for a rehearing in Chupp’s court based on “neutral” or secular principles governing nonreligious organizations.

That decision decidedly favored Iker’s group, which several years ago approved measures stating that all diocesan property belonged to the diocese and not to the national church.

Those loyal to the national church argue that the state law should yield to the laws of a hierarchical church, based on church-state separation principles, Sherrod said.

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