Wednesday, June 24, 2009

St. James Anglican formally petitions the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn decision

via e-mail:

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. – June 24, 2009 – St. James Anglican Church, which is at the center of a nationally publicized church property dispute with The Episcopal Church, today will file a petition for writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. St. James is asking the Court to overturn a prior decision of the California Supreme Court, which conferred a special power on certain religious denominations to take property they do not own simply by passing an internal “rule.” The petition asks the Supreme Court to decide whether, under the U.S. Constitution, certain religious denominations can disregard the normal rules of property ownership that apply to everyone else.

Dr. John Eastman, a nationally recognized constitutional law scholar, has joined the legal team to pursue the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. A response from the Court regarding the St. James petition can be expected as early as October 2009. A decision could be reached as early as mid-2010.

“We will be arguing to the U.S. Supreme Court that the California Supreme Court’s interpretation of state law has violated the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Even though it says Congress, that Amendment has been interpreted as applicable to the states as well.” Eastman said. “The California Supreme Court has given a preference to certain kinds of churches that claim to be hierarchical, that other churches and non-religious associations are not entitled to, and that violates the establishment clause. We will also be arguing that denying the local church community their ability to organize and hold title to their own building and conduct their religious services in a manner they see fit, this California decision violates their right to the free exercise of religion,” Eastman added.

Under longstanding law, no one can unilaterally impose a trust over someone else’s property without their permission. Yet, in the decision titled Episcopal Church Cases, the California Supreme Court ruled that certain denominations – those that claim to be a “superior religious body or general church” – can unilaterally impose a trust on the property of spiritually affiliated but separately incorporated local churches, resulting in the local church forfeiting its property if it ever chooses to leave the denomination. St. James will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court that this preferential treatment for certain denominations violates the U.S. Constitution.

The constitutional issues St. James is raising before the U.S. Supreme Court go far beyond the Episcopal Church. Every local church, temple, synagogue, parish, spiritual center, congregation or religious group which owns its own property through a religious corporation, and has some affiliation with a larger religious group, is at risk of losing its own property under the California Supreme Court’s ruling. As a result, religious freedom is suppressed, as those who have sacrificed to build their local religious communities are now at risk of having their properties taken based on some past, current or future spiritual affiliation. A United States Supreme Court decision in favor of St. James would benefit local church property owners throughout the country because it would allow them the ability to freely exercise their religion without risk of losing their property.

While petitions for review with the U.S. Supreme Court are never assured, there are compelling arguments for the Justices to grant this petition, including these facts:

· Dozens of church property cases are percolating in the court system, lacking clear constitutional direction.

· States are in conflict regarding the handling of church property cases.

· These issues have garnered widespread national attention and involve important questions of federal constitutional law.

The people of St. James Church have owned, and sacrificed to build and acquire their church properties for many decades without any financial support from the Episcopal Church. St. James Church never agreed to relinquish its property to the Episcopal Church upon a change of religious affiliation, and has consistently maintained that it has the right to use and possess its own property.

Even as St. James seeks a place on the Supreme Court calendar, the church’s legal battle has returned to the Orange County Superior Court. “While we are surprised that the California Supreme Court would prefer certain religions over others when it comes to property ownership, the battle in this case is far from over,” said Eric C. Sohlgren, lead attorney and spokesperson for St. James. “The case has already returned to the Orange County Superior Court. Because St. James had an early victory in 2005 by legally attacking the Episcopal allegations, we now look forward to presenting evidence and additional legal arguments on behalf of St. James. For example, St. James has brought a complaint against the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles based on a 1991 written promise that it would not claim a trust over the property of St. James on 32nd Street in Newport Beach. We had hoped Episcopal leaders would abide by this promise, but they sued St. James and its volunteer directors anyway.”

Click here for a copy of the writ of certiorari which will be filed today with the U.S. Supreme Court:

For more information, please visit the website:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The mathematical prospect of the Supreme Court taking any particular case on cert is so miniscule, that I always worry for people who make a big deal about the filing of one of these petitions. Nonetheless, issues arising from disputes over church property may ultimately get to the Supreme Court of the United States through some vector. My guess is that the Virginia situation is headed there ultimately, either instead of this case or in addition to it.

I'm not sure that the usual earmarks of the type of case the Court takes are present in this one. There is no great diversity in dispositions around the country (these cases are almost uniformly being decided in favor of the Episcopal Church, the exception being a local court in Virginia where a unique state statute has been controlling thus far) and the issue, as posed in California, is largely one of state law. I haven't read the cert petition, which may do a better job of putting this in constitutional terms, but the press statements sound as though St. James is playing to their own parishioners with their arguments not to the kind of bedrock constitutional issues that would grab the Supreme Court's interest.