An effort by the six-county Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles to claim ownership of buildings and other property of a conservative breakaway congregation in Newport Beach was tentatively rejected Thursday by an Orange County Superior Court judge.
St. James Church was one of three former Episcopal parishes to bolt from the diocese and national Episcopal Church one year ago over differences in church teaching and the national church’s controversial decision to ordain an openly gay priest in a committed relationship with another man as bishop of New Hampshire.
The diocese sued St. James and two other breakaway parishes for the property after they severed ties and placed themselves under the jurisdiction of a conservative Anglican bishop in Uganda.
The Episcopal Church is the U.S. member of the worldwide Anglican Communion.
In the tentative ruling Thursday, Orange County Superior Court Judge David C. Velasquez said the diocese had not shown that it would probably prevail in the property dispute with the St. James congregation, a dispute that also involved issues touching on 1st Amendment freedom of speech rights.
“Plaintiffs have not presented evidence that title to the parish property has ever been held in the name of any person or entity other than the parish since the time it was conveyed to the parish,” Velasquez wrote.
The judge also said the parish had made a prima facie case that it had been sued by the diocese after it had publicly disagreed with the national church’s views on homosexuality and other issues by issuing press releases and severing its ties with the diocese.
“Such acts arise out of and are in furtherance of the defendants’ exercise of the right to speak on a matter of ‘public interest,’ ” Velasquez wrote. “How churches in America are reacting to the different viewpoints on homosexuality is currently a topic of much public significance.”
Eric C. Sohlgren, an Irvine attorney who represents the congregation, cautioned that the judge could change his ruling. Additional arguments were to be heard Monday.
But Sohlgren said he was hopeful the parish would prevail. “If the court rules on Monday as it has tentatively ruled today, the case by the diocese and the other plaintiffs against St. James Church would be over,” he said, adding that the tentative ruling confirmed the parish’s contention that “St. James holds title to its own property.”
Attorney Larry Ebner, who represented the diocese, told City News Service that the disagreements on church teachings were irrelevant.
“This is a case where the church is trying to get its property back,” he said.
There has been no definitive ruling by the courts on the other two breakaway parishes, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David’s Church in North Hollywood.