St. James appeal to be heard

The California Supreme Court agreed this week to hear St. James Anglican Church’s appeal in a six-year property dispute with the Episcopal Church that began with the appointment of a gay cleric.

Newport Beach’s St. James Church holds that it has a constitutional right to defend itself with evidence in court following a March decision by the California Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, Third Division, which decided in favor of the Episcopal Church.

The church on 32nd Street broke away from the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles in 2004 after the Episcopal Church consecrated a gay bishop.

[St. James] feels very strongly that the property belongs to them and that it’s very important that other churches to be able to make a religious decision to change their affiliation,” Eric Sohlgren, the attorney for St. James, said Thursday. “Churches should not lose their property because of a religious choice.”

St. James has held the deed to the property and paid for all maintenance and building projects since the mid-1950s, Sohlgren said, yet the Episcopal Church maintains that all churches nationwide are in fact held in trust to the church.

"[The Episcopal Church’s] theory is flawed. It’s inconsistent with basic state trust law,” Sohlgren said.

California trust law states that only the property owner can agree to a trust, which St. James has never done, he added.

Sohlgren compared the situation to belonging to a garden club.

In his analogy, you decide to leave the garden club because of a difference in flower preference only to find that the garden club says that it owns your pots and gardening supplies, which you paid for and legally own.

In March, the California Court of Appeal ruled 2 to 1 that the Episcopal Diocese owns St. James. The decision was made before St. James could go through the discovery process and present evidence to the court, Sohlgren said.

The diocese could not be reached for comment Thursday.

“We’re trying to get back to a trial court where we can continue on with an opportunity to present evidence, which had been robbed of us,” he said. “We had to ask the Supreme Court to step in and save the day.”