California Supreme Court Rules On Property Rights

Breakaway congregations do not have property rights over church buildings, according to a California Supreme Court ruling.

The case involved three Southern California churches, St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David’s Church in North Hollywood. Members of the three churches broke away after the Episcopal Church decided in 2003 to elect an openly gay bishop.

The ruling said the property does not belong to dissident congregations but to the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Episcopal denomination.

“When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it,” Justice Ming W. Chin wrote for the unanimous court, which decided the case by examining property deeds, local church articles of incorporation and the church’s constitution, canons and rules and relevant statutes.

Real estate disputes over church property will likely continue across the country. In December, 700 conservative Episcopal congregations split to form a separate church in North America. Several Protestant denominations, including United Methodists and Presbyterians, have also faced turmoil over gay-rights issues.

John R. Shiner, chancellor for the diocese, said the ruling sets precedent and will “apply to all parishes throughout the state of California” and could also influence church property disputes nationally. (In re Episcopal Church Cases)