After a bitter, seven-year legal dispute, state District Judge John Chupp ruled Monday that the Episcopalians led by Bishop Jack Iker who broke away from the national Episcopal Church are entitled to an estimated $100 million in property in the 24-county Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
Fort Worth-area Episcopalians who remained loyal to the national Episcopal Church and reorganized the diocese under Bishop Rayford High have the right to appeal the decision.
“We are grateful for the ruling in our favor. It is clear that both church laws and Texas laws have been rightly applied in this dispute,” Iker said.
The schism occurred in 2008 when Iker and a majority of the 56 churches in the diocese broke away from the national church over issues including ordaining of gays and lesbians. Now Iker’s group is a part of the Anglican Church in North America.
Chupp’s order reversed his 2011 ruling declaring that the property belonged to the national Episcopal Church for use by the Fort Worth group that chose to remain affiliated with the New York-based denomination.
Chupp’s earlier decision was based on what are called “deferential” principles, meaning that state law should defer to the rules of hierarchical religious institutions. An Episcopal Church law, called the “Dennis Canon,” states that church property belongs to denomination, not local dioceses.
The Texas Supreme Court overturned that decision and ordered Chupp to rehear the case on “neutral principles” that govern nonreligious organizations. That favored Iker’s group, which several years ago passed several local diocesan ordinances declaring that the Fort Worth diocese, not the national church, owned the property in the diocese.
In a statement, High said: “We are disappointed in this decision but are hopeful for the future. This sacred property was built up over 170 years … by generations of Episcopalians for the use of the Episcopal Church. That remains our purpse in this litigation, and we are confident going forward under the rulings of the Fort Worth court of appeals and the Texas Supreme Court that are already in place in our case.”
Suzanne Gill, a spokeswoman for Iker’s group, said an appeal of the decision is expected.
“This will likely go to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth … and possibly to the Supreme Court again,” Gill said.
Katie Sherrod, a spokewoman for High’s group, said late Monday, “Our attorneys are reviewing the options and will confer with the bishop.”