The California Supreme Court on May 5 held that St. James Anglican Church can defend its property rights against the claims of the Episcopal Church with evidence in a court of law. The Court confirmed that its 2009 Episcopal Church Cases decision did not end the property dispute in the Episcopal Church's favor as it had claimed. "Further proceedings are still necessary to finally decide the dispute," said the Court.
The decision, titled Rasmussen v. Superior Court (Bunyan), returns the case to the Orange County Superior Court where St. James will now have the right to defend itself with evidence before a court of law, including having motions heard to dismiss church volunteers who have been sued by the Episcopal Church.
Eric Sohlgren, St. James's lead attorney, said, "St. James has been vindicated. The California Supreme Court has soundly rejected the idea that its prior decision required the people of St. James to move off the property they built and paid for over many decades. St. James will, at last, get its deserved day in court to present evidence showing that it has the legal right to the property."
In upholding St. James's right to put on its defense, the California Supreme Court rejected an argument of the Episcopal Church that a 1991 letter issued by a bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles -- which promised St. James that it could hold its property free of any Episcopal interest -- had been declared invalid by the 2009 opinion. The Court said, "We express no opinion regarding the legal significance, if any, of the 1991 letter. We merely hold that a court must decide the question."
St. James senior pastor, the Rev. Richard Crocker, said, "I'm thankful and grateful for this opinion. We are looking forward to having our day in court."
Before St. James had the opportunity to present its evidence, the Orange County Superior Court ruled in 2005 that the Episcopal Church's allegations were legally defective. After the trial court dismissed the Episcopal complaints, the appellate courts took years to decide what law should apply to the dispute, eventually ruling that the Episcopal complaints could go forward.
In early 2009, the California Supreme Court sent the case back to the Orange County Superior Court, where St. James for the first time answered the Episcopal complaints, raised affirmative defenses, began discovery, and looked forward to defending the property that its members bought, paid for and maintained since its founding six decades ago. In its 2010 opinion, the Court of Appeal majority essentially ruled that St. James could not defend itself, and that the Episcopal Church was entitled to judgment in their favor based on their allegations alone. Today's decision from the California Supreme Court rejects that unprecedented result.
The Episcopal lawsuits against St. James stemmed from a decision by the members of St. James Church in August 2004 to align themselves with another branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, and end the church's affiliation with the Episcopal Church over core theological differences involving the authority of the Bible and Jesus Christ. The Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles sued St. James Church, All Saints Church, Long Beach, CA, and St. David's Church, No. Hollywood, CA, and over two dozen volunteer board members in September 2004, including for monetary damages. Subsequently, the national Episcopal Church intervened into the lawsuits.
St. James Anglican Church continues to hold services every Sunday at its Newport Beach location as it has for the past six decades.