Ruling: St. James must return church to Episcopal dioscese

The long-disputed St. James Anglican Church campus in Newport Beach belongs to the larger Episcopal Church Diocese of Los Angeles, an Orange County Superior Court judge ruled last week.

St. James members split from the Episcopal Church nine years ago following disagreements about the ordination of a gay bishop and other issues.

The court order, which comes at what could be the end of a series of court battles over three church properties on 32nd Street, was reaffirmed Monday by Judge Kim G. Dunning.

"I give thanks for the culmination of this marathon litigation, and I pray this action will settle the fact that people can disagree but cannot take property that has been entrusted to the Episcopal Church for ministry," Right Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop of the six-county diocese, said in a statement. "I give thanks to God that, after these cases spanning more than eight years, we now can proceed with the continuing ministry of the Episcopal Church in Newport Beach."

St. James leaders said they were, "obviously disappointed by this ruling."

"We're praying about discerning the next steps," said the Rev. Richard Crocker, leader of the St. James congregation. "Our lawyers have advised us that a final judgment needs to be negotiated; that's happening over the next few days."

Whether the property was held in trust by the larger diocese or owned by the local church first came into dispute in 2004, after the St. James Congregation voted to disaffiliate from the Episcopal Church and to instead align with the Anglican Church.

The move, made St. James one of an increasing number of American Christians joining the Anglican Church, spurred by a "developing difference of opinion over what it means to live according to The Bible."

While he stressed that the diocese's decision to ordain openly gay bishop V. Gene Robinson in New Hampshire in 2003 was not the only point on which the Newport congregation disagreed with the larger Episcopal Church, it was a factor.

Still, he said, "the differences are much deeper."

In making the switch, the diocese has argued, St. James gave up the property obtained under the Episcopal Church banner.

"[The congregation] can certainly leave, but they can't take the property with them, because that belongs to the greater church," said John Shiner, an attorney representing the diocese. "When they join, they agree that property is held in trust for the greater church."

St. James, meanwhile, initially sought a declaration that it owned the campus on its own, since donations from its congregation members paid for millions of dollars of construction and improvements.

"We are essentially the congregation that built this church," Crocker said. "We have maintained it and developed it over the years."

Following numerous legal twists and turns, the case made it to the California Supreme Court in 2009. That group then sent it back down to the Superior Court level in 2011 saying that a State Court of Appeal had misinterpreted its initial ruling.

Although other similar disputes — over churches in La Crescenta, North Hollywood and Long Beach – were resolved in favor of the Los Angeles diocese, Shiner said what had been unique about the St. James case was a 1991 letter in which the diocese apparently agreed to waive its ownership of the third property, which it purchased around that time.

According to a court document, the letter had "no legal significance," because state civil code and existing church canon would place the property under the trust of the larger diocese — canon that the court cannot override.

But Daniel F. Lula, lead attorney for St. James said in a statement that, "by holding that the written waiver the Diocese gave St. James was innefective, the court's opened the door to denominations walking back on their promises to local congregations."

The congregation of about 700 now faces a choice between appealing or moving out of its home since 1949.

Crocker said that decision hasn't been made.

"We're either going to be where we are or somewhere else," he said. "Either one will work for us."

In the meantime, a St. James statement says, the congregation will continue to worship at 3209 Via Lido.

Twitter: @jillcowan

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