Bishop Seabury case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court

 

Bishop Seabury case appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court

Author: 

George Conger

Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, Conn., has filed a writ of certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court asking for a review of the Connecticut Supreme Court that upheld the Episcopal Church’s Dennis Canon.
Last week lawyers for the former Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut congregation, which now is part of the Anglican Church in North America, filed a 44 page petition with the court asking for review.  Only a fraction of the cases appealed to the Supreme Court are reviewed, however there is a likelihood the case may be heard as it covers legal issues addressed in two petitions filed in response to rulings by the Georgia Supreme Court: the case of Christ Church v. the Diocese of Georgia and the case of Timberridge Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of Greater Atlanta.
The question presented in the Bishop Seabury case to the Supreme Court is:
“Whether the First Amendment, as interpreted by this Court in Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979), requires state civil courts to enforce an alleged trust imposed on local church property by provisions in denominational documents, regardless of whether those provisions would be legally cognizable under general-ly applicable rules of state property and trust law. Groton — Bishop Seabury Church has asked the United States Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling that says the church and all its property must be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut.”
The dispute between Bishop Seabury Church and the Diocese of Connecticut began in 2007 when the parish quit the diocese.  In 2010 the state Superior Court held that under the terms of the Dennis Canon the diocese controlled the 6.5 acre church campus and all its assets.  On 16 Dec 2011 the Connecticut Supreme Court upheld the lower court ruling and ordered the congregation to vacate the property.
 The 14 March 2012 petition notes that the state courts are divided on the issue and have made contrary rulings based upon the 1979 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Jones v. Wolf.  Five state supreme courts and one federal circuit court hand held that denominational property trust rules such as the Dennis Canon should only enforced in civil court if they were in conformance to “objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law,” while four state supreme courts have enforced “denominational documents asserting a trust regardless of whether those documents are other 'embodied in some legally cognizable form’."
A change in bishops in Connecticut has lowered the temperature in what had been a heated dispute.  New Connecticut Bishop Ian Douglas has sought to find a way forward through the impasse, telling reporters that he had been in conversation with the Rev. Ronald Gauss and members of the congregation. “I have no desire or immediate initiative to move folk out of a church that they loved for so long,” Bishop Douglas told The Day newspaper.  “I’ve enjoyed our conservations. I felt quite blessed by them.”
However, the congregation has not been persuaded to return to the Episcopal fold. "God is faithful, and we know the Lord will lead and guide us regardless of where we worship," said Archdeacon Gauss.
"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."
A copy of the 12 March 2012 U.S. Supreme Court filing of the case of Gauss v. the Diocese of Connecticut may be found here.  A copy of the petition in Timberridge Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of Greater Atlanta may be found here.