Members of St. Luke’s of the Mountains Anglican Church are waiting for their day in court but for three other churches, that day has come and the decision has gone against them.
In a landmark ruling, the California Supreme Court on Monday upheld an earlier court decision that the property and buildings of three churches that separated from the Diocese of Los Angeles and Episcopal Church do not belong to the breakaway congregation but to the Diocese.
The ruling directly affects St. James Church in Newport Beach; St. David’s in North Hollywood and All Saints in Long Beach, but the ripple affect is being felt at St. Luke’s here at home. The three congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Diocese in 2004; St. Luke’s’ congregation left in 2006. At that time, then-pastor Father Ron Jackson said the congregation’s decision to leave the Episcopal community was due in part to the “drift of the American church.” The catalyst for the churches’ exodus was the consecration of the first openly gay bishop, Gene Robinson, by the Episcopal Church in 2003 in New Hampshire.
St. Luke’s fell under the leadership of the Anglican Province of Uganda in the Diocese of Luweero. The marquee in front of the church was changed from Episcopal to Anglican and the congregation stayed at the church. The congregation and ministry that wanted to remain with the Diocese left to find other Episcopal churches in the area.
On July 3, 2007, the Los Angeles Superior Court ruled the property at 2563 Foothill Blvd. belonged to the Episcopal Church of Los Angeles Diocese. St. Luke’s Anglican appealed that decision and in late August 2007 was granted a stay of judgment pending the appeal.
“The parties have completed the briefing and we are waiting for oral argument,” said Eric Sohlgren, attorney for St. Luke’s.
In the meantime, the state Supreme Court handed its decision down regarding the three other churches. That decision will be taken into consideration by the Court of Appeals when ruling on St. Luke’s.
John Shriner, lead council for the Diocese, said the oral arguments have not been scheduled yet but “we suspect it would be fairly soon.”
In the opinion written by Associate Justice Ming W. Chin, it was made clear that the decision did not deal with any religious debate.
“Applying the neutral principles of law approach, we conclude that the general church, not the local church, owns the property in question. Although the deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to be bound by its governing documents,” Associate Justice Ming W. Chin wrote in the 31-page opinion.
An important factor that came out of Monday’s decision by the court, according to Sohlgren, was that neutral or non-religion factors should be used in decisions concerning this type of case.
“That means every church will get its day in court,” Sohlgren said.
He added this is a positive factor for individual churches because not every property was acquired in the same manner.
Sohlgren quoted from the deed granted to St. Luke’s that states it is, “free and clear of any trust.” That type of language is different than most deeds, which makes St. Luke’s case unique from other churches.
In the opinion, Chin wrote, “We conclude that this action is not subject to an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) motion.” What that means, according to the attorney, is “this case is not over.”
The church has been in the Crescenta Valley community since 1924 and the court proceedings have not only affected the congregation that is now housed at the location, but those who stayed with the Episcopal Diocese and those who see the church for its historical value.
For Mike Lawler, president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley, it is an “extremely nervous time.
“The church houses many movable artifacts, including a bronze sculpture and works by Seymour Thomas, a noted painter from the region,” Lawler said. “There are also permanent installations, such as chimes and stained glass. The society is hopeful that whoever is entrusted with the care of St. Luke’s will continue the preservation efforts of those who have been in place before.”
Lawler said he has spoken to the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop Diocesan in the past.
“The bishop seems to recognize the architectural treasure that St. Luke’s is,” Lawler said.
Bruno has not yet determined exactly what the Diocese will do with the churches that were ruled on Monday.
“He will reach out to lay persons, clergy and community stake holders in the area for their conversation,” said Robert Williams, Cannon for Community Relations Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
For St. Luke’s, the immediate future is a continued waiting game.