Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Sometimes a news story drags on bit by bit, piece by piece, over the years and becomes so tedious that reporters miss the dramatic cumulative impact. It also doesn't help that long, slow-developing, nuanced religion stories have been known to turn secular editors into pillars of salt.

So it seems with the lawsuits against conservative congregations and regional dioceses that have been quitting the Episcopal Church, mostly to join the Anglican Church in North America, especially since consecration of the first openly partnered gay bishop in 2003.

The Religion Guy confesses he totally missed the eye-popping claim last year that the denomination has spent more than $40 million on lawsuits to win ownership of the dropouts’ buildings, properties, and liquid assets. If that’s anywhere near accurate it surely sets the all-time record for American schisms. And that doesn’t even count the millions come-outers have spent on lawyers. For more info, click here.

Note immediately that these elaborate data were pieced together by an obviously partisan if qualified source, “Anglican Curmudgeon” blogger A.S. Haley. He’s an attorney who specializes in church property law and represents the departing Diocese of San Joaquin in central California.  No reporter should simply accept Haley’s say-so and recycle his data unchecked. But a full accounting, working through his numbers with Episcopal officials, would make a good piece.

The legal tactics and spending have become much more aggressive in the 8 years under Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop.  Leaving aside Haley’s rhetoric about “a scandal of simply enormous magnitude,” such use of  donations  is fodder for debate, especially in comparison with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The ELCA suffered a larger breakaway after it approved partnered gay and lesbian clergy in 2009. But it avoids nasty publicity and legal expenses.  Any ELCA congregation can switch into the North American Lutheran Church or a similar body if parishioners hear from both sides and vote to leave by two-thirds margins at two meetings held at least 90 days apart. 

Likewise, the quiet splits from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and United Church of Christ invite little media furor because each local congregation is free to leave and keep its assets without legal threats.

On February 22, “Curmudgeon” compiled information on the 91 Episcopal property lawsuits in 20 states since 2000, with an interesting pattern. The denomination has won all but two of the 42 decisions on local congregations’ assets, either at trial or on appeal. But regional dioceses that pulled out as a whole have prevailed thus far in Illinois, South Carolina, and Texas.  Haley predicts the same with his pending case in California.  The national church did defeat one diocese, in Pennsylvania, due to what Haley brands a “very strained reading” of technicalities.
Haley explains that judges believe dioceses enjoy “freedom of association” under the Constitution’s First and Fourteenth Amendments, which includes the right to dis-associate. Thus, he contends, the Episcopal Church is spending untold millions on arguments it will “lose every time.”
Media calendar: What will happen at the denomination’s General Convention June 25 – July 3 in Salt Lake City? Haley is confident the $40 million matter will “be swept under the rug” without serious floor discussion or adequate detail in the next budget. The convention will also decide whether to drop church law’s definition of marriage as “a lifelong union of husband and wife,” and elect a successor to the retiring U.S. Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori  (official nominees will be announced in early May).   

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