Fort Worth

Episcopal Church group will appeal latest court ruling

Bishop Rayford High
Bishop Rayford High Handout

Episcopal leaders on the losing side of a long-awaited court ruling Tuesday will appeal state District Judge John Chupp’s decision that a breakaway group led by Bishop Jack Iker is entitled to millions of dollars in property in the 24-county Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

Attorneys met Tuesday with Bishop Rayford High, who leads the Fort Worth Episcopalians who remained in the Episcopal Church in 2008 after Iker and a majority of the 56 churches in the diocese severed ties with the denomination over several issues, including ordaining gays and lesbians.

Iker’s group now is a member of the Anglican Church in North America.

Both groups refer to themselves as the Episcopal Dioecse of Fort Worth.

High said in a statement that he was disappointed with the decision “but quite hopeful for the future.”

“The sacred property was built up over 170 years in this part of Texas … so it will be available for generations of Episcopalians,” High said. “… That remains our purpose in this litigation, and we are confident going forward under the rulings of the Fort Worth Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court that are already in place in our case.”

Chupp’s ruling late Monday afternoon stated that Iker’s group will control all the property listed in the litigation except for Fort Worth’s All Saints Episcopal Church, which will be handled in a separate court hearing.

Also, several congregations that voted to remain in the national church and were allowed to continue meeting at their church property will not be ousted while the appeal is in progress, said Katie Sherrod, spokeswoman for the High-led group.

“The status quo will remain during the appeal,” Sherrod said.

Those churches include St. Luke’s in the Meadow and St. Christopher, both in Fort Worth; St. Elisabeth in River Oaks; and St. Stephen’s in Wichita Falls.

Under previous agreements, three other churches that remained part of the national Episcopal Church were granted ownership of their church property, said Suzanne Gill, spokesman for Iker’s group. They are Trinity in Fort Worth, St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Keller and St. Luke’s in Stephenville.

After Chupp’s ruling late Monday afternoon, Iker issued a brief statement declaring that “we are grateful for the ruling in our favor. It’s clear that both church laws and Texas laws have been rightly served.”

A statement from Iker’s group on Tuesday stated that “the laity and clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth rejoice with Bishop Iker and join him in giving thanks for this ruling. We pray for a quick resolution to the remaining claims and disputes. We will continue to carry out the mission given us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: to win the world for Him.”

The ruling, according to Iker’s statement, means that “Bishop Iker and the duly elected officials of the Diocese and Corporation control the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, its Corporation, all endowments and funds, and all property that has been disputed in this litigation.”

Chupp’s ruling was a reversal of his 2011 decision, in which he ruled that all the diocese’s property belonged to the group that had remained in the Episcopal Church.

His ruling then was based on “deferential” principles, meaning that state laws should defer to the rules of hierarchical institutions such as the Episcopal Church.

Iker’s group appealed and the Texas Supreme Court ordered a rehearing based on “neutral” principles of Texas law governing nonreligious groups. That decision was a victory for Iker’s group, which earlier had approved several legal actions declaring that the property belonged to the local diocese and not the national Episcopal Church.

In its appeal. the group led by High will continue to argue that the property is owned by the Episcopal Church, held in trust for those who are Episcopalians.