Court upholds ruling on church property

St. Luke’s of the Mountains Anglican Church lost the court battle over its property this week when the San Diego-based Fourth District Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a lower court’s ruling in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, stating its right to the land the church sits on and its buildings.

The ruling is the climax to a years-long battle between St. Luke’s and the diocese.

On one side is the 85-year-old St. Luke’s that on Feb. 13, 2006, disassociated itself with Episcopal Church USA and the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and aligned with the African Provence of Uganda in the Diocese of Luwero, with whom St. Luke’s has had a longtime relationship. The St. Luke’s split from the church in Los Angeles represents one of many disaffiliations across the state that made headlines earlier this year. At issue, among others, is the election of V. Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop elected in 2003 to serve as bishop of New Hampshire.

On the other side is the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, which as a result of St. Luke’s disaffiliation, sued St. Luke’s two months later in Los Angeles Superior Court, alleging the church no longer had a right to use the property, based on a 1979 Episcopal Church law which makes all Episcopalian property the property of the diocese.

“The people of St. Luke’s Anglican Church have shed many tears at the thought of being deprived of our house of worship for these past 85 years, a building we have given and maintained for the glory of God and the benefit of all who choose to worship here,” said Father Rob Holman, pastor of St. Luke’s, in a written statement. “That the bishop of Los Angeles would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in the courts to wrest all, down to even the small wooden processional cross from the hands of our youngest acolytes, is unfathomable to the Christian heart.”

“I want to make it clear that it [the court decision] is in line with the [California] Supreme Court decision and all other decisions that have taken place in these cases,” said Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, in a telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles. Bruno grew up in St. Lukes’ congregation and was confirmed there. “I am looking forward to having a new priest placed in that location, and will hopefully welcome back all the people who have left there and the people who even are worshipping as the Anglican community there.”

Bruno sees the court’s decision as an opportunity to continue ministry under the auspices of the Episcopal Church. He does not call the decision a victory, per se, rather a vindication for the Episcopal Diocese.

“You can disagree within the Episcopal Church with anything you want ... but you can’t take property of the people of the Episcopal Church,” said Bruno. “You must leave it and move away if you don’t agree with the way we worship.”

Bruno said that he does not expect to make any changes right away as far as assigning a new pastor is concerned, and will wait until the decision becomes final to formally name anyone. Any changes to St. Luke’s various ministries will be made under the jurisdiction of the new pastor, said Bruno.

Messages to legal council representing the plaintiff were not returned as of press time.

“[St. Luke’s] is exploring their options,” said lead council for St. Luke’s Anglican Church Eric Sohlgren. “They are disappointed by the decision, since they have paid for all of the property in La Crescenta. They hold the deed to the property. They have maintained the property for many decades, and they strongly believe that they are entitled to remain on their property.”

“And yet we choose to ‘joyfully accept the plundering of our property, since we know that we have a better possession and an abiding one,’” said Holman, quoting Hebrews 10:34. 

Mary O’Keefe contributed to this story.

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