Skip to comments.Jacksonville, FL: Episcopal Diocese is suing church
Posted on 04/01/2006 8:41:39 PM PST by sionnsar
Episcopal Bishop John Howard has turned to the courts to force a Southside Jacksonville congregation to turn its church over to the Episcopal Diocese of Florida.
Howard filed a lawsuit in Duval County this week demanding that the rector and lay leadership at the Church of the Redeemer hand over the keys and all other parish property to his Jacksonville-based diocese.
The lawsuit contends that Episcopal congregations hold their property in trust for the diocese and that Redeemer forfeited its property rights by quitting the diocese in January.
The Rev. Neil Lebhar, rector at the Church of the Redeemer, called the lawsuit "unbiblical" because it violates New Testament Scripture prohibiting Christians from suing one another. Split in the denomination
A group of congregations known as "The Florida Six" have left the Episcopal Diocese of Florida and the Episcopal Church USA since November. All have joined conservative Anglican bishops in other nations who, like them, condemn the November 2003 election of an openly gay man as Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire.
Three of them -- Calvary Church in Jacksonville, St. Michael's in Gainesville and St. Luke's Community of Life in Tallahassee -- left their facilities voluntarily.
Grace Church in Orange Park, after being threatened with a lawsuit, agreed to leave its facility after Easter. Beginning April 21, the congregation will worship at Orange Park High School.
Church of the Redeemer in Jacksonville is being sued by the diocese while All Souls in Jacksonville remains in negotiations over the fate of its property.
Even more congregations have announced their intentions to leave the denomination, possibly by the end of the summer. biting Christians from suing one another.
Redeemer is one of several parishes and missions to leave or announce plans to leave the diocese in recent months and to join more conservative overseas Anglican dioceses.
In doing so, they join other congregations nationally who are quitting the Episcopal Church USA to protest what they see as its abandonment of biblical tradition and its 2003 election of an openly gay priest as bishop of New Hampshire.
Some of the Florida congregations have left their properties willingly. Grace Church in Orange Park, after being threatened with a lawsuit, agreed to leave its facility and will hold its last service there on Easter.
But others, like Redeemer and All Souls in Mandarin, have remained determined to keep their properties. All Souls remains in negotiations about the future of its property.
Because Episcopal churches pay all expenses related to their parishes -- from priests' salaries to electric bills to mortgages -- they are the rightful owners of their properties, Lebhar said.
But the diocese holds the deeds to the properties and its lawsuit cites Episcopal Church laws declaring that dioceses own their parishes.
American courts have traditionally shied away from getting involved in internal church disputes, and when they do they tend to rule in favor of the parent church organization, such as a diocese or denomination.
The diocese's lawsuit said Lebhar and Redeemer's vestry members violated their obligations to the diocese by joining another church.
The lawsuit seeks not only the return of property but also legal costs and a special master to perform an accounting of all Redeemer property.
Lebhar said Redeemer will argue that its allegiance and responsibilities are to the Anglican Communion, a worldwide organization to which the Episcopal Church also belongs.
Lebhar said he is saddened by the lawsuit because it runs counter to a passage in First Corinthians that says it is better to be defrauded or wronged than to take another believer to court.
I'm with the parishioners on this one -- they paid for the church facilities so I believe they own the church facilities.
There is already legal precedent (California, I believe) for a local church to leave the parent congregation and keep their property. And, I believe that there is conflicting case law (not sure of the state).
This will be an interesting case to armchair quarterback.
Here's a SCOTUS decision worth reading on the subject of the power of courts over hierarchial churches.
"Here's a SCOTUS decision worth reading on the subject of the power of courts over hierarchial churches. "
Here's one more on point:
JONES v. WOLF, 443 U.S. 595 (1979) (Vineville Presbyterian)
Generally, Calfornia has been ruling for the local congregations, Pennsylvania has been ruling for the Bishops, and there isn't enough out there from the other states to predict.
I do know that the higher authorities held actual title to some of the Florida properties; in those cases the locals are going to lose. I don't recall about this particular church.