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Diocese Wins Another Round in Court

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/07/05 17:39

The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles is the rightful owner of the buildings and other property of a conservative La Crescenta congregation that broke away from the diocese last year, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision by Judge John Shepard Wiley Jr. against St. Luke's of the Mountains came more than a week after an appeals court panel in Orange County ruled in favor of the six-county Los Angeles Diocese in a similar property dispute with three other parishes.

The judge said Tuesday that he could not ignore the higher court's extensive June 25 ruling on comparable issues, but said he expected an appeal in the St. Luke's dispute as well.

"This case is far from over, but it's over in this court," he said.

In February 2006, a majority of St. Luke's congregants voted to pull out of the diocese and the 2.3-million-member Episcopal Church because of differences over biblical authority and interpretation, including the Episcopal Church's 2003 decision to consecrate an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.

The other dissident congregations — St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David's Church in North Hollywood — broke away in August 2004 over largely the same issues. Each has placed itself under the authority of a conservative Anglican bishop in Uganda.

The diocese sued, arguing that the congregations held their buildings and other property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church as a whole. An Orange County trial judge, in separate decisions, had ruled in favor of the three parishes.

But a three-judge panel of the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana overturned those opinions last week.

In Tuesday's hearing, Wiley said that before the appellate court's detailed, 77-page ruling, he had been leaning toward a decision for St. Luke's. But after the appellate ruling, he was obliged to defer to the higher court and its analysis of church property precedents in California and elsewhere, he said.

Outside the courtroom, officials and attorneys for St. Luke's said they were disappointed by the judge's decision, but not surprised.

"This doesn't change our decision to withdraw from the diocese and the Episcopal Church, and to uphold the decisions of the wider Anglican Communion," said the Rev. Ronald W. Jackson, the church's rector. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the 77-million-member worldwide Anglican Communion.

Jackson said he continued to believe that the St. Luke's property was owned by the congregation itself, not the diocese.

"We're a vibrant, growing congregation and we're going to continue the ministry that Christ has called us to," he said.

Eric Sohlgren, lead attorney for St. Luke's and the other dissident local parishes, said St. Luke's officials were expected to quickly decide whether to appeal. Sohlgren repeated his view that the appellate ruling was contrary to three decades of legal precedent in California and that it probably would be overturned.

But the Rt. Rev. J. Jon Bruno, bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese, said he was happy with Tuesday's decision and eager to reconcile with St. Luke's parishioners and leaders, many of whom he has known for years.

"We want to sit down with them, to understand their pain, have them understand ours and come back together," Bruno said.

The Southern California parishes are among about four dozen congregations that have seceded from the Episcopal Church since the consecration of the gay bishop in 2003. Many of those are in similar legal struggles over church property.

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