Bishop Seabury Church appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court

GrotonBishop Seabury Church has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling that the church and all its property must be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.

The legal battle started after the Rev. Ronald S. Gauss in 2007 led his parish away from diocesean supervision over several disagreements, including the Episcopal Church's ordination in 2003 of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, and the election of a woman as presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. in 2006.

A state Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that the Connecticut diocese owns the 6.5-acre church site and its contents. The judge ordered Gauss and his parishioners to give up the property, but granted them a stay to continue to worship in the church as they appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court.

The state Supreme Court last year unanimously ruled against them and denied a request from the parish to reconsider. The parish was told to vacate the property.

The church filed the petition March 14, asking the high court to clarify conflicting rulings on state property and trust laws. "On one side of the split... at least five state supreme courts and one federal circuit hold that courts need to enforce trust provisions in denominational documents only if the provisions create a trust under, 'objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law' that are developed for use in all property disputes."

On the other side of the split, the petition says, four state supreme courts mandate "enforcing denominational documents asserting a trust regardless of whether those documents are otherwise 'embodied in some legally cognizable form.'"

Because of the uncertainty, Bishop Seabury Church claims local churches cannot predict whether courts will recognize them as property owners, and that no local church can affiliate with a denomination without risking the loss of its property.

The church also claims in its petition that the uncertainty forces both churches and denominations to wage costly legal battles over property, and discourages local churches from expanding their buildings. The ruling, the church claims, also discourages local churches from acting in accordance with conscience on whether to remain affiliated with their current denominations.

"God is faithful, and we know the Lord will lead and guide us regardless of where we worship," said Gauss in a statement. "But we also believe it's time for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide once and for all whether the state courts have to enforce church canons or can decide these cases based on ordinary property and trust law. We believe the First Amendment is on our side."

The diocesan bishop, the Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, said he is not surprised that Bishop Seabury Church is pursuing all its legal options.

Douglas said he is not in an immediate rush to enforce the court's order, and is hoping to come to a resolution that would keep the parishioners in the fold.

He said he has met with leaders at the church and has offered various options to bring this to a resolution, including bringing in "delegated episcopal pastoral oversight," meaning finding them a bishop in the Episcopal church with whom they might be more open to having a relationship.

Another option might be renting the facility if the church chooses to align itself with the Anglican Rite in the Roman Catholic Church.

"I have no desire or immediate initiative to move folk out of a church that they loved for so long," Douglas said. "I've enjoyed our conservations. I felt quite blessed by them."

Christ Church in Savannah, Ga., and another Presbyterian church in Georgia also have asked the Supreme Court to intervene on these issues.

The Bishop Seabury parishioners believe in a strict interpretation of the Bible. In 2007, they affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America to remove the parish from the jurisdiction of the American Episcopal church and put it under the oversight of a Nigerian bishop.

i.larraneta@theday.com

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