Ruling kicks St. James property case back to trial court

In a 6-1 ruling Thursday, the California Supreme Court reversed an appeal court's decision over ownership of the St. James Anglican Church property in Newport Beach, sending the case back to a trial court for arguments.

In a nine-page opinion written by Associate Justice Ming Chin, the court found that the state Court of Appeal erred and misinterpreted the court's ruling on the matter in 2009. Associate Justice Joyce Kennard dissented.

"I think the position St. James has maintained in the courts has been vindicated," said Eric Sohlgren, the attorney representing the parish. "The court rejected that its prior decision had resolved the property dispute."

In the court's opinion, the case is essentially back to where it started years ago.

"Further proceedings are still necessary to finally decide the dispute," Chin wrote. "We merely hold that a court must decide this question."

The question is who owns St. James, 3209 Via Lido, and churches in Long Beach and North Hollywood: the congregation or the Episcopal diocese?

Although St. James parishioners have had the deed to the property since before it joined the diocese in 1949, attorneys for the diocese argued the parish lost the right to the property when it joined. They point to a 1979 decision by the diocese in Los Angeles County to amend its canon establishing that parishes in the diocese are holding the property in the diocesan trust. Should they break away, according to diocesan canon, the property remains with the diocese.

When the diocese ordained openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire in 2003, St. James and the other congregations broke away, saying the diocese had become too liberal. The parishes aligned with the Anglican Province of Uganda instead.

After St. James broke away, the Episcopal church sued but the case never reached the arguments stage because the Los Angeles Diocese joined the lawsuit. The trial court threw out the diocese's involvement, but the Court of Appeal in Santa Ana reversed its decision.

St. James then appealed to the state Supreme Court. There, the court upheld the appeal court's decision and also said that St. James did not own the property, according to the arguments presented to it.

The Court of Appeal apparently misinterpreted the property-rights part of the Supreme Court's ruling, and ordered the lower court to rule in favor of the diocese over St. James. Thursday's ruling by the Supreme Court corrects that.

"We're back at square one," Sohlgren said. "The procedural posture of the case now is that the Episcopal lawsuits against St. James have not survived all these years of appeals that the church has brought."

John Shiner, representing the Episcopal diocese in Los Angeles, said he's confident his client will win.

"I think the principals articulated by the Supreme Court in its earlier decision are broad enough that they answer all the questions that are relevant for future consideration by the trial court," he said. "We're looking forward to moving the case forward to conclusion."

The case could be back in a Santa Ana courtroom for arguments in about six weeks, Sohlgren said.

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