Episcopal diocese of Fort Worth petitions the Supreme Court

The Episcopal Church and loyal Episcopal parties and congregations of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth filed a petition for writ of certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court yesterday.

News release from the Episcopal Dioceses of Fort Worth:

The Fort Worth parties were joined in the filing by the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas and the officials from the continuing Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in San Angelo. Both dioceses have suffered from breakaway factions that swore to uphold The Episcopal Church before breaking ties and claiming to take historic Episcopal names, churches, and property with them. Episcopal parties in both dioceses won summary judgments from the trial courts under 100 years of Texas law, before the Texas Supreme Court changed the rules of the game and undid decades-old intrachurch arrangements. Both Episcopal parties have now been locked out of their historic houses of worship for half a decade.

The Episcopal Parties have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review these August 30, 2013, decisions of the Texas Supreme Court. A statement from the Episcopal Diocese of Northwest Texas on the Good Shepherd opinion is here, and a statement of from the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth on the Texas Supreme Court opinion is here. In those decisions, the Texas Supreme Court retroactively changed more than 100 years of Texas precedent to substitute a “neutral principles” test for the “deference” test in church property disputes; the court also held that the Church’s Dennis Canon, a trust canon enacted at the U.S. Supreme Court’s instruction in 1979, was “not good enough under Texas law.”

The Petition asks the U.S. Supreme Court to address three federal Constitutional questions:

1. Whether the First Amendment or Jones v. Wolf requires courts to enforce express trusts recited in general-church governing documents (as some jurisdictions hold), or whether such a trust is enforceable only when it would otherwise comply with state law (as others hold).

2. Whether retroactive application of the neutral-principles approach infringes free-exercise rights.

3. Whether the neutral-principles approach endorsed in Jones remains a constitutionally viable means of resolving church-property disputes, especially in light of Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC.

The U.S. Supreme Court is likely to decide whether to review these questions when it resumes its new term on October 6, 2014. If review is granted, the parties will file briefs and give oral argument, with a decision possible by the end of the term in June 2015.

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