On July 24, 2014 the Diocese of Quincy (Quincy) won a major victory against The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago after nearly 6 years of litigation and a two week trial involving over 15,000 pages of exhibits including the Nicene Creed. The case involved the issue of whether a diocese retains ownership of its assets upon secession from a denomination. In reflecting on this litigation, retired Bishop Keith Ackerman, has referred to Quincy which was the smallest of the Episcopal dioceses, as ‘the mouse that roared.’
The controversy began in November 2008, when the Diocese of Quincy along with 23 of its 28 churches voted to secede from the national church over fundamental theological differences. In an all too familiar pattern, TEC responded by convincing PNC Bank to freeze all of Quincy’s assets, leaving the Diocese strapped for cash. In the lawsuit that followed TEC sued the Diocese. In order to raise the stakes, TEC added Quincy’s officers and trustees to the action to put them personally on the hook. TEC claimed that because it was a hierarchical church, it called all the shots and the court must defer to its determination that Quincy could not secede from TEC. Following this logic, TEC claimed to be the true diocese and the rightful owner of all diocesan property which the seceding Quincy now held in trust for it since it left.
The trial court in Quincy first handed a shock to TEC when it denied TEC’s summary judgment motion and ordering TEC to prove at trial that it was hierarchical. After a string of over 50 wins, TEC was not prepared for this ruling coming out of the Adams County courthouse. Then, in a well-reasoned opinion after the trial, the trial court again disagreed with TEC, holding that: “There is no provision in TEC’s Constitution or Canons which require prior approval (by TEC) of a diocesan constitution or its canons. There is no express prohibition against withdrawal of a diocese.”
In a unanimous opinion, the Appellate Court also rejected TEC’s claims and held that TEC failed to prove that it was hierarchical. More importantly, it ruled that even if TEC were hierarchical, this was irrelevant because deference by the court to the determination of the hierarchy was not necessary since the property dispute could be decided using neutral principals of law. As stated by the Appellate Court:
This approach (neutral principals of law) may be applied in resolving property disputes, even within a hierarchical church organization, so long as the court need not decide a religious matter involving church doctrine, polity or practice.
Applying the neutral principals of law approach, the Appellate Court found that the trial court properly reviewed all of the relevant deeds, governing church documents and agreements with the bank holding diocesan funds. Finding nothing in the documents to support TEC’s express or implied trust claims, the property remained with the Diocese of Quincy after it amended its governing documents and legally seceded from TEC. In so ruling, it further affirmed the trial court’s determination that TEC’s attempt to remove the diocesan trustees or officers and replace them with its own people was of no effect.
As Tad Brenner, the Chancellor for the Diocese of Quincy who defended the Diocese put it: “This is a huge victory…This is the first time there has been an appellate court decision in this country that can be cited as a precedent in other jurisdictions.” Mr. Brenner clearly had in mind the courts of Texas, California and South Carolina where TEC is embroiled in similar litigation claiming ownership of all property belonging to seceding dioceses in those states. No doubt, he was also thinking of other Episcopal dioceses that are unhappy with the course that TEC has chartered and are considering realignment with the Anglican Church of North America. He also must have been thinking of several other lawsuits TEC has brought against individual Quincy parishes in Illinois.
Quincy’s Vice-Chancellor Richard Baker, an attorney with Mauck & Baker, LLC, summarized the importance of this case stating that: “beyond the realignment taking place in the Anglican sphere, this ruling has broad implications for other denominations. Hierarchy will no longer be assumed by the courts and even “hierarchical” denominations must now take note that the courts may use neutral principals of law to decide property disputes”
Of course, TEC may still appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court so the battle may not be over and there are two cases pending in Illinois in which TEC has sued individual Quincy pastors. So please keep praying.
(Richard C. Baker is the vice-chancellor of the Diocese of Quincy)