The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to review a Texas Supreme Court decision ordering a rehearing of a long-running dispute involving millions of dollars worth of property sought by two rival groups both claiming to be the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
Fort Worth Episcopalians loyal to the U.S. Episcopal Church had appealed the state high court’s ruling. The decision Monday means that the case returns to 141st state District Court for rehearing.
Bishop Jack Iker said in a news release: “We are very pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed with our position that the TEC [The Episcopal Church] petition for a review was without merit. We now move forward of this case under neutral principles of law as applied by the state of Texas.’’
The split of the Fort Worth Episcopalians became official in 2008 when Bishop Jack Iker and a majority of the 56 congregations in the 28-county diocese voted to leave the national church, saying its leadership had moved away from biblical and church tradition in many ways, including ordaining women and gay and lesbian priests.
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Episcopalians loyal to the national church went to court, arguing that under the Episcopal Church’s “Dennis Canon,” diocese property should belong to those still loyal to the national church.
In 2011, state District Judge John Chupp agreed, ruling that because the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical body, property should be retained by the group still loyal to the national church.
Iker’s group appealed, and the Texas Supreme Court ordered Chupp to rehear the case and to base his judgment on neutral principles of Texas law governing nonreligious groups.
The group loyal to the national church appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Bishop Rayford High, leader of the Fort Worth group loyal to the national church, said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision “was not by any means a loss or a defeat.”
“We wanted to try it, because we felt there were some constitutional errors in the Texas Supreme Court’s decision,” High said.
Chupp’s decision favoring High’s group was based on “deferential principles” of law that had been use in Texas for more than 100 years to settle disputes in hierarchical churches, High said. “What that means is that if it is a hierarchical church, the courts defer to canons and laws of that church,” High said.
Suzanne Gill, a spokeswoman for Iker’s group, said that the Texas Supreme Court’s order that the rehearing be done under neutral principles of Texas law is a key point.
“Texas is one of only a few states that says unless a trust agreement specifically states that the trust is irrevocable, it can be revoked,” she said. “In 1989 we expressly revoked that trust in our constitution and canons,” stating that all property belongs to the local diocese and not the national church.
Attorneys for the national church argue that the “Dennis Canon” of the national church’s governing rules implies an irrevocable trust, Gill said, but her group argues that it is not explicit.
“It’s a disputed issue but is a question of interpretation and not fact,” Gill said.
High said: “We have a good case. We are very confident we can win on neutral principles.
High said his group is now planning for the rehearing, which he said will be delayed from the original Dec. 17 date to some time in early 2015.
Lawyers representing Episcopalians loyal to the national church are also preparing a request for summary judgment to be presented to Chupp, said spokeswoman Katie Sherrod.
Chupp could either grant a summary judgment or order a jury trial, Gill said.
In March, the Supreme Court also declined to hear an appeal in a similar dispute among Episcopalians in northern Virginia. The justices rejected an appeal by Falls Church Anglican, one of seven Virginia congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2006.
This includes material from Star-Telegram archives.