An Illinois court has dismissed the claim that as a “matter of law” the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical with dioceses being subordinate to the national church, rejecting a motion for summary judgment brought by the national church against the breakaway Diocese of Quincy.
The 16 Dec 2011 decision by Judge Thomas Ortbal of the Eighth Judicial Circuit Court in Adams County, Ill., now sends the dispute between the Diocese of Quincy and the national church and its allies to trial. The court also concluded that even if the church is hierarchical, that would not end the matter because a "neutral principles of law" approach should be applied to resolving the property ownership dispute.
Judge Ortbal’s decision – which cannot be challenged on appeal at this stage of the proceeding without his permission – may well be a legal blow to the national church’s litigation strategy in its fight with other breakaway dioceses as it cuts the legs out from under the national church’s chief legal argument.
While many courts have held that a hierarchical relationship exists between congregations and a diocese, and on the strength of this contention have granted summary judgment in favor of the diocese, the Quincy decision rejects the analogy that a diocese stands in relationship to the national church as a parish does to a diocese.
Following the 2008 vote by its diocesan convention to quit the Episcopal Church, Quincy filed a declaratory action in state court against the national church to quiet title to the assets of the diocese. The national church and a loyalist faction filed a counter claim, seeking possession of the diocesan assets. It argued that while individuals may quit the church dioceses may not, and filed a motion for summary judgment against the now ACNA-affiliated diocese.
The issue facing Judge Ortbal was whether the Episcopal Church was a hierarchical church as defined by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case of Watson v. Jones the Supreme Court in 1872 held that a hierarchical church was one where a congregation was “a subordinate member” of a church where there existed “superior ecclesiastical tribunals” that exercised the “ultimate power of control” over the “whole membership” of the church.
This decision was further refined by the Supreme Court in the 1979 case of Jones v. Wolf which held that courts may use the "neutral principles of law" standard – looking at the underlying title deeds and corporate bylaws – to adjudicate church property disputes.
In the Quincy case, the national church argued that there could be no dispute as to the fact that the Episcopal Church was hierarchical under the standards set by the Supreme Court. It further offered into evidence rulings from a number of other cases involving parish – diocese property disputes that showed that courts across the U.S. had concluded the Episcopal Church was hierarchical.
The Diocese of Quincy responded that a diocese was not a parish. The constitution and canons did not subordinate dioceses to the national church, Quincy argued. The 1982 Episcopal Church constitutional amendment that said new dioceses must give their “unqualified accession” to the constitution and canons of the national church did not mean that dioceses who enacted such an accession had given their perpetual subordination to the national church.
In his decision, Judge Ortbal wrote that the “documentary evidence” submitted by the national church was “certainly supportive of their position. However, confirmation and proof of their construction and interpretation of the church Constitution and canons and its supremacy necessarily involves inferences to be drawn from the evidence. The inferences they ask the court to draw are reasonable.”
The judged added that “nevertheless” Quincy had argued that “contrary inferences can reasonably be drawn from the same undisputed documents and facts.”
As the standard in a motion for summary judgment is to view the evidence “in the light most favorable” to the responding party [Quincy], the court found that “reasonable persons could draw different inferences from the undisputed facts” rendering a motion for summary judgment improper.
Judge Ortbal further rejected the evidence of other court decisions as having proven that the Episcopal Church was “hierarchical as a matter of law."
The national church had cited “numerous cases” which they “assert mandate acceptance of their position in this case and granting of their motion for summary judgment. The court has reviewed the cases, but does not find it is bound by them,” the judge said.
He further stated that he found the “cases distinguishable on different levels and does not find them conclusively persuasive as to the record before it. For example, the vast majority of the cases involve disputes between local parishes and dioceses and/or the national church. These cases appear very fact driven and many involved concessions or stipulations as to matters which are disputed on this record. Many involve specific religious corporation and/or other state statutes not applicable in the present case.”
Judge Ortbal further noted that even if he accepted the national church’s argument that the Episcopal Church was hierarchical and the Diocese of Quincy a subordinate entity of the national church, “that would not entirely resolve the dispute. The circumstance of the hierarchical structure of government of a church does not preclude a civil court decision respecting a property dispute even under Watson v. Jones … provided the decision can be made without intrusion into the ecclesiastical domain.”
The judge reasoned that assuming the Episcopal Church’s argument was true, and that the courts must defer to the decisions of the apex of a church hierarchy in disputes with subordinate entities, this “would not necessarily resolve the question of whether the property, held by the Diocese and the Trustees in this case, was subject to a clear right to denominational appropriation by the national church.”