Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth  

Oregon Supreme Court supports
neutral principles, state trust law

Dec. 3, 2012



 

The state of Oregon has joined a majority of other states in support of the neutral principles approach to church property settlements, bringing the total nationwide to 38. In a Nov. 29 opinion resolving a Presbyterian church's dispute, the Oregon Supreme Court adopted neutral principles and vigorously supported the role of state-level trust laws for establishing property ownership.

In light of this decision, our legal team has filed a letter brief with the Texas Supreme Court and updated our Bench Exhibit 1 of Oct. 16.

Letter Brief filed Dec. 3, 2012

  Post-submission brief
filed with state Supreme Court
Nov. 15, 2012
 

The additional brief approved for filing by the Court in advance of our oral argument on Oct. 16 was filed with the clerk today. The filing concludes with a two-page chart titled “Setting the Record Straight” which clarifies certain statements made by the TEC parties.

Within minutes of this filing, the attorney for the Presiding Bishop of TEC submitted an additional eight-page “letter brief” to the clerk. While asking the Court to enforce the national canons upon the Diocese, it does not explain how trustees of a Texas nonprofit corporation may be removed and replaced by outside interests.

The BriefThe TEC Letter

  Diocese presents its case at
Texas Supreme Court
Oct. 16, 2012
 

Leaders of the Diocese of Fort Worth and its Corporation, along with our legal defense team, were encouraged Tuesday by the thoughtful questioning by the justices of the Texas Supreme Court during oral argument. Each of the seven justices in attendance engaged in the discussion, and their questions showed a high degree of preparation for the 40-minute hearing.

Scott Brister represented the Diocese and Corporation; on the other side of the aisle, Thomas Leatherbury represented local Episcopal parties, and Mary Kostel, an attorney chosen by the Presiding Bishop’s chancellor, represented The Episcopal Church. Both parties expressed a desire for the Supreme Court to render its own decision in the case, rather than remanding it back to the 141st District Court in Fort Worth for a revision to the judgement rendered there in January 2011. Although both parties also agreed that the Corporation holds title to diocesan property, the main question the justices are being asked to decide is whether state law will be applied to church property disputes in the same manner in which it is applied to all other property disputes in Texas.

Within the next 30 days, our legal team will file a post-submission brief. The Court has approved the additional brief to allow the Diocese to respond to a filing it accepted from the TEC parties on the eve of oral argument, an exception to the Court's usual page limits for appeals.

While it is impossible to predict when a ruling will be made, the legal team hopes for a decision by next spring. The ruling will be precedent-setting, whatever the outcome. Till that time at least, our congregations will remain in the properties they now occupy. Our legal team asks for continued prayer for the justices as they confer regarding our case, and particularly for the justice who will be assigned to author the ruling.

Immediately following oral argument in our appeal, the Court heard the appeal of Church of the Good Shepherd, San Angelo. Archived video recordings of both sessions can be found by searching for “October 2012” on the Court's Web pages.

Following the morning's oral arguments, Mr. Brister commented, “It was an honor to represent Bishop Iker and the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth today before the Texas Supreme Court and a packed courtroom. The members of the Court were obviously well-prepared, and their questions reflected the thought they have already given to this case. We expected these issues would eventually have to be decided by the highest Court in Texas, and the experience did not disappoint.”

Bishop Iker expressed his gratitude to the legal team, whose members have represented us so faithfully, and to all those who made sacrifices of fasting and prayer for the hearing today. He added, “We were greatly encouraged by the dynamics in the courtroom today. There can be little doubt that ours is a clear and convincing case.”

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Two “bench exhibits” were given to the justices this morning as part of our presentation at oral argument. One is a chart showing which states already have adopted the neutral-principles method of resolving church property disputes. The other sets out key points about the case and concludes with a chart showing TEC’s recent history of involvement in church property cases. They are linked below.

 

 

 

 

 

Bench Exhibit 1Bench Exhibit 2

  Supreme Court sets date
for Oral Argument
Aug. 31, 2012
 

We are pleased to announce that the Texas Supreme Court has set October 16, 2012, as the date to hear oral arguments in our direct appeal of the trial court ruling in the property litigation brought against us by The Episcopal Church. This is the same date previously set to hear a similar case involving the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo.

Bishop Iker and our legal team are extremely pleased with this development, which brings us closer to a complete resolution of the lawsuits which began in April 2009 against the Diocese and Corporation.

Please continue to remember our attorneys – Scott Brister, Shelby Sharpe, and David Weaver – in your prayers as they prepare for their appearance before the court on our behalf.


  Motion filed for expedited hearing July 6, 2012
 

Attorneys for the Diocese, Corporation, and congregations have filed a Motion to Expedite Oral Argument in our appeal to the Texas State Supreme Court. This extraordinary request was prompted, in part, by the threat of ecclesiastical discipline against the seven TEC Bishops who filed a brief in April as friends of the court, describing the structure of TEC hierarchy, as expressed in the Constitution and Canons which govern TEC’s General Convention and its relationships with member dioceses.

The Motion seeks a date for oral argument not later than October 16 this year. That is the date the Court has set to hear arguments in the appeal of Church of the Good Shepherd, San Angelo.

Because the Court is currently in recess, it is not expected to consider the Motion before it reconvenes in August. Action against the bishops was initiated at the end of June.

More information is available at the links below.

Motion to Expedite Oral Argument

June 30 report of a complaint against the bishops

Note: This story is ongoing. Read more at anglicanink.com


  Anglican Communion Institute
joins seven bishops in amicus filing
April 24, 2012
 

Seven bishops of The Episcopal Church, along with the Anglican Communion Institute, have submitted a brief to the Texas Supreme Court on a matter of significance to the appeal of the Diocese and Corporation. The bishops include five active and two retired episcopal leaders. They are the Rt. Rev. Maurice M. Benitez, retired Bishop of Texas; the Rt. Rev. John W. Howe, retired Bishop of Central Florida; the Rt. Rev. Paul E. Lambert, suffragan Bishop of Dallas, the Rt. Rev. William H. Love, Bishop of Albany; the Rt. Rev. D. Bruce MacPherson, Bishop of Western Louisiana, the Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins, Bishop of Springfield; and the Rt. Rev. James M. Stanton, Bishop of Dallas. The leaders of the ACI are the Rev. Christopher R. Seitz, the Rev. Philip W. Turner, and the Rev. Ephraim Radner.

The 29-page brief, filed Monday, April 23, seeks to clarify TEC polity, which the ACI and the seven bishops believe was misunderstood by the Fort Worth trial court when it issued its summary judgment ruling. Specifically, the brief states that attorneys for The Episcopal Church parties sought “to establish an alternative authority to that of the diocesan bishop” in their pleadings, which is contrary to TEC’s structure, as expressed in its Constitution and Canons. A correct understanding will necessitate the reversal of the summary judgment against the Diocese and Corporation, the brief argues, since TEC is hierarchical at the level of the diocese.

Read the Amicus Brief (PDF).

Read the ACI statement.



   
  Reply brief filed; oral argument
date anticipated
March 26, 2012

 

 

Attorneys for the Diocese, Corporation, and congregations filed a reply brief with the state Supreme Court on Friday, March 23. This is the conclusion of a process set by the Court when it accepted our case on direct appeal from the 141st District Court. The latest brief answers issues presented by the TEC parties in their response (filed March 8) to our original Feb. 6 brief [see the article below].

An opportunity for oral argument has been requested. Currently the Court has not set any future hearing dates.

Appellants’ March 23 Reply Brief (PDF)


 

  Brief asks Court to establish
Neutral Principles in Texas
Feb. 6, 2012
 

In a 49-page brief filed today with the Texas State Supreme Court, attorneys for the Diocese, Corporation, and congregations asked the Court to uphold several previous Appellate Court decisions and establish Neutral Principles as the method for resolving church property disputes in the state.

Members of the Texas Supreme Court
Members of the Texas State Supreme Court

Neutral Principles, accepted in 36 states and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court since 1979, is a method of settling questions of church property ownership using the same rules that govern ownership of other types of private property, and it removes courts from wading into doctrinal disputes.

The brief also asked the Court to reverse the Fort Worth trial court's February 2011 decision in favor of the Episcopal parties' claims to diocesan property, and instead to uphold well-established state codes on trust instruments and non-profit corporations. The brief asks the Court to grant the Diocese's summary judgment claims and prevent a hostile takeover of diocesan property by outside parties.

The brief concludes:

If given a chance, this case might have been settled amicably with five or six churches leaving
the Diocese with their church buildings intact and the vast majority continuing in it. But that opportunity was lost when TEC demanded everything held by anybody, even if that included
local churches where TEC had not a single adherent. Based on the deeds, the church
constitutions and canons, and Neutral Principles of Texas law, the Plaintiffs are not entitled to
any of this.

This case is not a contest about which bishop or group TEC can claim as its own; it is about
what property TEC can claim as its own. The only way it can take property it has never
owned or paid for is if Texas courts defer to whatever TEC says even if that is contrary to
its own church rules. Under Neutral Principles of Texas law, the Defendants are entitled
to summary judgment against the Plaintiffs’ claims.

Following today's filing, the TEC parties have until Feb. 27 to submit a reply; a response from the Diocese is due by March 13. Oral argument has been requested; a date has not yet been set by the Court.

 
Read the Brief:
Appellants’ Feb 6 Brief Supporting Documents (Tabs)



 
  Texas Supreme Court grants
motion for direct appeal
 
 

The elected officers of the Diocese and Diocesan Corporation were extremely pleased today to learn that the Texas State Supreme Court has granted our motion for direct appeal. The Court has agreed to reconsider the February 2011 decision by the 141st District Court, which would result in the surrender of all property to representatives of the New York-based Episcopal Church.

The Diocese's written brief is due to be filed with the Court by Feb. 6. The opposing parties may respond by Feb. 27, after which the Diocese will have about two weeks to reply. A hearing date has not been set.

Commenting on the news, Bishop Jack L. Iker said, “We are delighted with the decision of the Texas Supreme Court to grant our request for a direct appeal in the lawsuit brought against us by The Episcopal Church. It is very rare for a direct appeal to be filed in the first place, and it is even rarer for the Supreme Court to grant one. It is clear that the Court understands that key questions of the constitutionality of Texas statutes, trust codes, and property laws are at issue in this litigation.

“It is our hope and expectation that the Supreme Court, using neutral principles of law, will rule in our favor.”

With one Episcopal church property appeal from the Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo already before the Court, it is even more significant that the court has moved so swiftly to take up our case. This announcement encourages us to believe that the Court finds merit in our case, and it renews our hope of an early conclusion to litigation that has already consumed almost three years and millions of dollars in legal expenses.

“It is gratifying,” said Fort Worth attorney J. Shelby Sharpe, who heads the diocesan legal team,“ that the court has granted the petition for direct appeal in this critical religious freedom case. We look forward to the court's ultimate decision, which should be helpful to other courts facing similar issues.”

 
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