Episcopal Diocese Takes Legal Action Against Breakaway Churches

Lawyers for the Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles demanded breakaway churches to 'relinquish' church buildings, prayer books and other property
( [email protected] ) Aug 28, 2004 04:27 PM EDT

The Lawyers for Episcopal diocese of Los Angeles sent a letter on Friday, demanding the congregants and leaders of three breakaway parishes to “relinquish” church property until the rightful ownership is determined. The attorneys, who threatened to sue, said the dissenting parishes have until Monday to obtain any requests.

Church buildings, prayer books and other property were "irrevocably dedicated to the church and the diocese under the jurisdiction of the bishop," diocesan attorney John R. Shiner wrote.

The legal threat is the latest in the series of charges made between conservative parishes and the Los Angeles diocese of the Episcopal Church.

Within the past two weeks, The three parishes - All Saints' in Long Beach, St. James in Newport Beach and St. David's Episcopal Church in North Hollywood, seceded from the Los Angeles diocese as well as the national Episcopal Church (the ECUSA) and realigned themselves with the conservative Anglican diocese of Uganda.

Meanwhile, six of the 147 parishes in the Los Angeles diocese joined the conservative branch of the ECUSA, the American Anglican Council, further refusing the authority of the Los Angeles bishop Jon Bruno.

Bruno, upon hearing the decisions of the three parishes, initially urged them to reconsider and be reconciled to the denomination. However, the three parishes refused to heed to Bruno’s advice, reminding him that he no longer has authority over them.

In the letters, penned by Bruno’s lawyers, the diocese demanded financial statements, member registers and copies of bank accounts and investment portfolios from the parishes.

Both the leaders of St. James and All Saints released statements saying the parish attorneys were reviewing the letter, and that no decision has yet been made.

"We're just worshipping in our own property," said Father Praveen Bunyan of St. James. "We're doing what is legally our right. We will continue to have worship services here. We have peace about it."

Rev. Jose Poch of St. Davids was unavailable for comments on Saturday. However, earlier in the week when his parish announced the decision to break, Poch said the church would hold on to the property and stand on firm legal ground.

Traditionally, the national denominations have had the upper hand in cases involving property rights. Most denominations, including the ECUSA, have a clause in its constitution stating that all properties of local parishes are part of the “trust” of the national church. Local churches that have broken away from the national denominations have argued against the clause, since the local churches were built upon the offerings of the local congregations.

Recently, in nearby Fresno, Luke’s United Methodist Church won its case involving property rights debates with the United Methodist Church. The case in Fresno was the second time a secular court ruled in favor of the local congregation in the past 4 years.