AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court awarded more than 60 church properties valued at over $100 million Friday to the breakaway conservative Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth that left the national church due to it allowing female and gay bishops and same-sex marriages.
In an 8-0 ruling, the all-Republican high court decided the breakaway diocese is the rightful owner of church properties within a 24-county area. Justice Jane Bland did not participate in the ruling.
Still calling itself the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, over 80% of the diocese’s membership voted to leave the church in 2008 and affiliate itself with the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone in South America.
In 2009, it helped form the Anglican Church in North America with other conservative-leaning diocese in the United States and Canada who disapproved of the liberal shift of the church’s social and doctrine teachings. The ACNA has lobbied the Church of England to be a member province of the Anglican Communion, but has yet to be admitted.
In the breakaway group’s absence, the national Episcopal Church held a special convention in 2009 for the diocese’s 17 remaining parishes and selected a new bishop and leadership. The breakaway and loyalist diocese have since fought in the courtroom over who has property rights over the church properties, with the trial judge granting summary judgment in the breakaway group’s favor and ordering the loyalist group to stop acting as the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.
That ruling was later reversed by Texas’ Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, which concluded that the First Amendment requires deference to the loyalist diocese “because the organizational result of a schism is an ecclesiastical matter.”
In ruling for the breakaway diocese, Justice Eva Guzman reasons that the breakaway group does acknowledge the national church’s ecclesiastical authority but that the issue of property ownership “is a temporal matter determined by what the diocese’s charters, state statutes and [the national church’s] constitution and canons actual say” about the diocese’s governance.
“The Fort Worth Diocese’s identity depends on what the documents say,” the 30-page opinion states. “To that end, the Diocesan Constitution and Canons provided who could make amendments and under what circumstances; none of those circumstances incorporate or rely on an ecclesiastical determination by the national church; and nothing in the diocese’s or national church’s documents precluded amendments rescinding an accession to or affiliation with [the national church].
“Applying neutral principles of law, we hold that the majority faction is the Fort Worth Diocese and parishes and missions in union with that faction hold equitable title to the disputed property under the Diocesan Trust.”
The breakaway faction said it is “grateful” for the high court’s ruling and “for the clarity” it gives.
“We give thanks to the members of our legal team — Shelby Sharpe, Scott Brister, and David Weaver — for their sound counsel, expertise, and perseverance throughout these proceeding,” it said in a statement.
The loyalist diocese acknowledged its disappointment in the ruling and urges “all of us to be gentle with one another during this trying time.”
“Now I, other diocesan leaders, and our legal team have to make decisions about our next steps,” Bishop Scott Mayer said in a statement. “For now, we all must don the mantle of patience and forbearance.”