Published January 05. 2014 4:00AM
Groton - The Connecticut Episcopal Church is seeking community input as it decides how to best use the former Bishop Seabury Church on North Road in Groton.
Bishop Ian Douglas said Thursday the church is open to all possibilities, including leasing or selling the building, but first must find out "what God is up to in greater Groton."
"We would prefer to put the needs and opportunities of the community first before the needs of the church," he said. The building is now being leased by another worship group, he said.
A community meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Thursday in the former Bishop Seabury Church at 256 North Road to hear ideas.
Bishop Seabury Church was at the center of a legal battle that almost reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012.
The fight began five years earlier, when the pastor, the Rev. Ronald Gauss, led his parish away from supervision of the diocese.
His church opposed the ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003 and the election of a woman as the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church inn the United States of America in 2006.
Bishop Seabury Church was among six Connecticut parishes that then filed a lawsuit, saying their rights had been violated because they wanted and tried to break away from the church's authority.
But the parish lost its fight. A Superior Court judge ruled in 2010 that the diocese owned the property, and the court ordered Gauss and his congregation to give it up.
Next, the state Supreme Court effectively upheld that decision, denying a request from the parish to reconsider. Then in March 2012, Gauss asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the lower court's ruling. But the high court declined to review it in June 2012, and the parish later relocated.
Douglas said the Episcopal Church now wants to look at the community's resources, needs and consider, "How can we help foster those life-giving actions in the wider community and join with that as a people of faith?"
Local officials, including the Groton director of human services, campus director of the University of Connecticut at Avery Point, and supervisor of the Groton Senior Center, were among those notified of the meeting.
Betty Ann Reiter, director of Groton Public Library, said she sees a need for a community center or more social services.
"We have kids that spend a whole day here, never go out for lunch and we know that they're hungry," she said. "We'd love for them to have a place to go and be taken care of."
Town Manager Mark Oefinger said the church is conveniently located and could work for many organizations.
Douglas said there's no timetable for a decision. After the community meeting, he said diocese staff and the church property committee would discuss the options and reach out to community and government officials who spoke.
Any decision to sell or lease the building would be made by many people, including the bishop and a standing committee with authority over use of properties, Douglas said.
"We're completely wide open," he said. "We have no preconceived direction."