There was a brief ripple on the church property legal front this past week as the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Texas Supreme Court Decision regarding the Episcopal Church cases. Personally I found this to be an expected outcome and frankly a non-event for reasons I will explain in a minute, but it occasioned a look at another Presbyterian case that has some related characteristics.
The Texas case is the one I discussed recently where the Texas Supreme Court overturned the summary judgement granted to the mainline Episcopal Church in the lower courts based on it being a hierarchical denomination. The Texas decision then sent it back down to the trial court for a full hearing on neutral principals but The Episcopal Church appealed it to the U.S. Supreme Court which this past week included it in a summary order of the cases that they declined to hear.
As I said in the lede, nothing in this struck me as unusual as the high courts prefer to weigh in after a case has run its course in the lower courts. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court has, to my knowledge, yet to accept any of the recent church property cases for review. As a more experienced observer of the Episcopal church property cases, Allan Haley who writes at the Anglican Curmudgeon, says in his analysis of this order:
The order was expected, because neither decision by the Texas Supreme Court was final. The U. S. Supreme Court almost never agrees to review lower court decisions until they are final. In these two cases, the Fort Worth matter was sent back to Judge Chupp’s court for a trial, and the Church of the Good Shepherd case was likewise sent back to the trial court in San Angelo for further proceedings.
The action by SCOTUS now frees both of those cases to move ahead.
Reading further in his analysis I was interested to see that the parties who have left the mainline Episcopal church have filed for summary judgement and how, in his view of the cases, now it all comes down to one specific question:
In Fort Worth, Bishop Iker’s attorneys have filed a motion for summary judgment which is scheduled for a hearing in December. Given the decision by the Texas Supreme Court, the only question remaining for the trial court to decide is whether or not ECUSA managed to create a valid trust in the Diocese’s property which the Diocese did not revoke when it decided to withdraw in 2008. In Texas all trusts are deemed to be fully revocable at any time, unless the language creating the trust states otherwise.
I am not sure that is the only issue to be resolved but I don’t follow these with the focus or knowledge Mr. Haley does. It will be interesting to see where this goes.
This news has brought to the forefront another Presbyterian case that I have not previously included in these discussions, that of Windwood Presbyterian Church in Houston. As a Christian Post article details the history, they began the process of getting clear title to their property back in 2008 and departed for ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians this past May with the property issue still unresolved. As in the Episcopal cases they initially lost on summary judgement in the Texas courts because of the hierarchical church argument but the August 2013 Texas Supreme Court decision caused the Appellate Court to vacate their earlier decision and send the case back to the trial court for a full hearing.
But Mr. Haley’s comment above about whether a valid trust was created caught my eye because that will clearly play a role in this case. Windwood was a member of the PCUS at the time of the union creating the PC(USA) and the PCUS churches had the option of avoiding the trust clause. I quote from the fourth page of the Appellate decision (emphasis mine):
The Book of Order also contains a provision permitting a local church, with in eight years of the formation of the PCUSA, to opt out of the trust provision if it had not been subject to a similar provision before the formation of the PCUSA. Windwood never exercised this right.
While Windwood has multiple arguments for it’s clear ownership of the property under a neutral principles approach, it seems that their not having exercised this option is a significant hurdle they have to cross. This would appear to be an acknowledgement by the church back in 1991 (eight years after the union) that they are subject to the trust clause in a hierarchical church. I am curious to see how all this balances out as the courts see it.
As a side note, I would point out the case of Timberridge Church in Georgia where Atlanta Presbytery successfully argued that the opt-out was only one of several tests of whether the trust clause was in place and that the congregation was still subject to it in spite of exercising the option. But to my knowledge, that case is unique regarding the interpretation of the opt-out option.
So, as usual, each case carries its own nuances. And, based upon past history on these cases, whichever side prevails in the trial court appeals can be expected. We will see where all this leads.