An Illinois circuit court has rejected the national Episcopal Church’s claim that it is a “hierarchical church” under law, handing down a ruling that supports the Diocese of Quincy’s secession from the national church.
Details of the court's ruling have yet to be analyzed by Anglican Ink, but the Illinois ruling appears to have rejected the legal arguments brought by the national Episcopal Church in its litigation with departing dioceses and congregations -- upholding the neutral principles of law doctrine over deference to the denominational polity of the church.
The suit came On 7 Nov 2008 delegates to the diocesan synod meeting at St John’s Church in Quincy, Illinois, approved the second and final reading of a constitutional amendment withdrawing from the Episcopal Church. The vote was 41-14 in the clergy order and 54-12 by the laity. A second resolution affiliating the diocese with the Southern Cone pending the creation of a Third Province in North America was approved 46-4 in the clergy order and 55-8 in the lay order.
Attorneys for the national church in January 2009 wrote to the bank that manages the diocese’s endowment funds, stating that the breakaway diocese no longer had a claim on the funds and that its officers should not be permitted to disperse the funds. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori wrote the members of the Standing Committee in February informing them that she no longer “recognized” them as officers of the diocese.
The diocese responded by filing suit in March against the national church, seeking a declaratory judgment that it had the legal right to the name and assets of the diocese. The national church filed a counter claim against the officers of the diocese – which was without a bishop following the retirement of the Rt. Rev. Keith Ackerman – and sought a summary judgment against the diocese and its leaders. It argued that a rump group within the diocese that remained loyal to the national church was the true diocese, and the court should give precedence to the denomination’s leadership in resolving the dispute.
A key issue before the trial court was whether the Episcopal Church was a "hierarchical church”, as described in the 1872 U.S. Supreme Court decision Watson v. Jones. The Supreme Court held in that case “the religious congregation or ecclesiastical body holding the property is but a subordinate member of some general church organization in which there are superior ecclesiastical tribunals with a general and ultimate power of control more or less complete, in some supreme judicatory over the whole membership of that general organization.”
However, the relationship of a parish to a diocese was not comparable to that of a diocese to the national church, the attorneys for Quincy argued. They further argued the national church’s 1982 constitutional amendment that dioceses acceded to the national church’s constitution and canons did not mean that dioceses were subordinate to the general convention.
Attorneys for the diocese asked Judge Ortbal to examine the facts and issues in dispute through Illinois law and judge the matter under the doctrine of neutral principles of law – the standard set in 1984 for church property disputes by the Illinois courts, not ecclesiastical deference.