(Edited and Updated)
The decision of the Supreme Court, Queens County in St. James Church, Elmhurst v. Episcopal Diocese of Long Island, Index No. 22564/05, was rendered on March 12. Over at SF, a scathing critique of the decision’s result does not engage the court’s reasoning. For the decision’s critics, the fact that the court found that a parish does not have a right to secede from the Episcopal Church is enough to (forgive the pun!) damn it. No analysis of the applicable state law is necessary.
This attitude is one that is, frankly, all too prevalent–and not just confined to one “side” of the dispute. Despite the fact that I’m a lawyer, I’ve tread warily with respect to these state law issues outside of my home state of New York, and likewise with respect to questions swirling around the canonicity of deposing Bishops Schofield and Cox. That is because canon law is complex, requiring review of caselaw, statutory language, and what we in the law biz call legislative history. Without access to a library containing such things, and a fair amount of time to review them, the better course is to remember Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”
But, finally, the St. James decision is one where I feel I can offer an opinion. It’s in my state, I’m admitted to the bar, and I’ve had a chance to read the decision’s reasoning, and not just a partisan reaction to the holding. So let’s begin:
1. The Procedural Posture
Both sides moved for summary judgment–that is, a decision based on a finding that no material issue of fact is disputed, and therefore a trial is not necessary. Both sides had moved for summary judgment, and so that determination seems unlikely to be overturned on appeal.
2. The Facts Underlaying the Court’s Decision
St. James was established in 1704, but received a corporate charter in 1761. (Decision at 4). After the Revolution, St. James (as well as two other churches) petitioned the New York State Legislature “to permit these churches to exist in corporate form ‘in communion of the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York.’” (Decision at 5). In 1793, the Legislature passed a statute providing that “the said corporation of St. James church ... shall and may...take and use the name of, The Rector and Inhabitants of the town of Newtown, in Queens County, in communion of the Protestant Episcopal church, in the State of New-York; and ... be capable” of transacting business “in as full and ample manner” as before. (Decision at 5-6).
In 1951, St. James successfully petitioned for an order under the State Religious Corporations Law, approving the sale of certain real property, reciting, that “the sale had been consented to by the Bishop of Long Island” and other diocesan authority. (Decision at 6). The deeds referred to in the petition were produced to the court in this case, and (when entered into after the Revolution) described the Church as “in communion with the Protestant Episcopal Church of the State of New York” or to the corporate name as enacted by the Legislature. (Decision at 7).
When in 1849 St. James built its second church building, the corporation signed an “Instrument of Donation” stating that “the building would be used solely for the purposes of conducting religious services ‘according to the provisions of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.’” (Decision at 8). The Instrument further stated that the “property would not be put to any use inconsistent with the Instrument of Donantion.” (Id.).
St. James owned property in Lower Manhattan that Trinity Church, Wall Street had an interest in as well, and sought in 1964 to sell it. St. James filed a petition seeking judicial approval of the sale, noting that Trinity agreed to waive its interest in the property as long as the proceeds be held in trust, and that the principal “‘shall revert to Trinity Church in the event that said St. James Parish shall cease to be an Episcopal Church.’” (Decision at 8-9). St. James sought the court’s approval of the sale under Religious Corporations Law § 12, as it had previously done in 1951, and noted that the Bishop of Long Island had, as before, given consent to the sale. Decision at 9).
I’ll spare you the details of the schism–it’s the usual: doctrinal differences, especially over homosexuality, with the parish withholding some assessments–but not all–and continuing to contribute to the pension funds of the clergy. Let’s move on to the analysis.
3. The Court’s Analysis
New York applies the “neutral principles of law” analysis, under which the language of property deeds, the terms of the church charter, and the provisions of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church property are employed. (Decision at 22). The court reviews these documents to determine whether there is any basis for finding a “trust or similar restriction in favor of the general church, taking care to scrutinize the documents in purely secular terms.” (Decision at 22). The court must take special care not to become involved "in internal religious disputes” or become engaged in "purely ecclesiastical concerns “such as church governance or polity.” Decision at 22-23).
Under New York law, a church may be either “hierarchical” (centrally organized as a single body) or “congregational”–a confederation of local churches, which remain independent at bottom). The Episcopal Church has been routinely deemed hierarchical. (Decision at 23-24). This conclusion conforms to cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York intermediate appellate courts, and other trial level courts in the State. (Decision at 23-24). However, even where a church is hierarchical in nature, local members can claim property “provided that they have not previously ceded the property to the denominational church.” Decision at 24, quoting First Presbyt. Church v. United Presbyt. Church, 62 N.Y.2d 110, 120 (1984). In this case, the court found, the local church had clearly ceded the property. The court based this conclusion on several factors:
i. The Instrument of Donation in 1849, because the present use by a non-TEC Church is inconsistent with the Instrument;
ii. The 1964 proceeding made clear that the funds in trust would revert to Trinity Wall Street should St. James “cease to be an Episcopal Church.” (At this point, the court determines St. James’s incumbents have no claim on these funds; they appear to have lost credibility with the Court by maintaining these funds in an escrow account, rather than surrendering them);
iii. The reincorporation by the New York State Legislature, referencing “communion with” TEC. The court explicitly found that this provision stripped the vestry of authority when they disaffiliated with TEC.
iv. The relationship with the Diocese was not, as the incumbents claimed, severed prior to 2005; one of the incumbents admitted as much, and the correspondence established it as well;
v. The history of obtaining the Diocese’s consent before selling property, in 1951 and 1964.
vi New York State’s statutory acknowledgment of a “trust” relationship between parishes and TEC in Rel. Corp. Law § 42-a, enacted in 1991.
vii The Dennis Canons, amended in 1979. Both the Diocese and the incumbents produced expert witnesses regarding whether the amendments “affirmed and ma[d]e clear existing canonical church law” or acted to “effect a change in said law.” (Decision at 32). Based on Canon II.6, extending as far back as 1871, and Canon I.7 (1941), the Diocese’s expert was credited. (Decision at 33). Canon II.6, in particular, states that consecrated property “must be ‘secured for ownership and use’ by a parish or congregation ‘affiliated with [TEC] and subject to its Constitutions and Canons.’” (Decision at 33).
One reason for the court’s rejection of the incumbents’ challenge to the Dennis Canons was that “in the 26 years following the adoption of the Dennis Canons... St. James raised no objections to these Canons, until after the March 30, 2005 schism.” (Decision at 34).
As has been common in these cases, the court did not find for the Diocese on claims for damages–no doubt the sincerity with which the religious controversy is being waged on both sides led the court to want to avoid a punitive ruling. (Even though a strict reading of the law might not have been observed by that part of the ruling, as the implication of the ruling is that the former vestry is guilty of conversion, I think the court was probably right).
[Update: 3/29/08 On further reflection, I think the incumbents made three litigational errors that significantly undermined their cause: The first, referred to above, is that they continued to claim the trust funds, even though leaving TEC clearly abrogated the explicit terms of the trust. To be intellectually consistent, they should have argued that the funds belonged not to St James Parish-Anglican, but to Trinity Wall Street. Second, By arguing that the Religious Corporations Law did not govern St. James, they elided the fact that St. James had twice filed petitions under that statute, and had prevailed. A party who seeks relief under a legal theory and wins is prohibited by what is called "judicial estoppel" from denying that theory in subsequnt proceedings. Finally, the claim of a complete severance in relationship prior to 2005 was both untenable and unnecessary. By making a claim that correspondence, flow of funds and the incumbents' own witnesses undermined, precious credibility was lost.]
4. Prospects for Appeal
Finally, the fact that the Court of Appeals–New York’s highest court–is reviewing Episcopal Diocese of Rochester v. Harnish, 17 Misc.3d 1105A, 851 N.Y.S.2d 57 (Sup. Ct. Monroe Co. 2006), aff’d 43 A.D.3d 1406 (4th Dept. 2007), may offer some hope to the dissidents here. If the Court of Appeals overrules First Presbyterian, and rejects “neutral principles,” that may indeed be the case. I suspect, though, from reading the opinion in Harnish, that what attracted the Court of Appeal’s interest was that the court below granted summary judgment almost exclusively on the statutory argument, and on the assumption that the hierarchical nature of TEC was near-dispositive of the property question; after losing on summary judgment, the dissidents sought to bring in evidence that they had not ceded the property, but the lower court ruled that they had lost their opportunity to do so. The Court of Appeals may be uncomfortable with ruling on so sensitive a subject based on, in essence, a procedural default. The upshot of all of this is that, unlike the court in Harnish, the court in St. James made a very factually-specific, nuanced ruling. I not only think it will stand up on review if appealed, I think that it’s correct under the law, and under the facts.