Judge: Episcopal Dispute Should Be Settled By Church, Not Court

The Episcopal bishop of Connecticut may not be sued over his actions in a struggle over the role of gays in the church, a federal judge has ruled.
( [email protected] ) Aug 24, 2006 01:48 PM EDT

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The Episcopal bishop of Connecticut may not be sued over his actions in a struggle over the role of gays in the church, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Janet Bond Arterton in New Haven dismissed a legal challenge against Bishop Andrew D. Smith, leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

"Whether Bishop Smith acted contrary to, or outside of, the diocese’s own rules is a question of canon law, not a question of constitutionality of the challenged Connecticut statutes," Arterton wrote in the ruling Monday. "A declaration of unconstitutionality by the court would not redress the plaintiffs’ actual grievances or their theological disputes" with Smith, she ruled.

The lawsuit, which was filed in 2005, accused Smith of violating the civil and property rights of the six priests and the churches they led. The churches had sought to break away from Smith’s authority because of his support for the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

The dispute between Smith and the so-called "Connecticut Six" has attracted national attention since his vote in 2003 favor of Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The conflict was one of several court battles in the United States between the church and conservative parishes.

The lawsuit said Smith acted illegally when the diocese seized control of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Bristol in July 2005 after its priest, the Rev. Mark Hansen, was stripped of his duties by Smith. Smith later removed Hansen from the priesthood.

The lawsuit also named Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold III, presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church, and state Attorney General Richard Blumenthal as defendants.

"I am gratified by the decision of Judge Arterton that it is inappropriate to seek federal intervention in a matter of church life and governance," Smith said in a statement.

"Noninterference by civil authorities in religious matters is a constitutional foundation of our nation and I trust that those members of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut who appealed to the courts will recognize the significance of this ruling and will seek to live in communion with their bishop, and this church," he said.

One of the six Connecticut priests, Rev. Ronald Gauss of Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, was quoted by the Hartford Courant in editions prepared for Wednesday that he was disappointed in Arterton’s ruling and that the priests will decide on their next step.

Five of the six priests, including Gauss, remain in their posts. They were found to be "out of communion" with Smith by a committee of the church following a breakdown in negotiations that would have allowed the churches to operate under the authority of a conservative bishop.

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