AUSTIN, Texas (AP)
The Texas Supreme Court will decide who owns 52 Fort Worth-area church properties valued at more than $100 million in a case being hailed by lawyers as one of the largest church property disputes in state and U.S. history.
The dispute erupted about five years ago after the Fort Worth Episcopal diocese broke away from the national church in protest of the consecration of a gay bishop, ordination of women and other policies it perceived as too liberal. The Fort Worth diocese claimed it owned the churches and other properties, but in 2009 the national church sued, arguing the breakaway group could not take the buildings and land.
Attorneys believe the Supreme Court’s decision could determine how Texas handles similar disputes in the future, cases that often require a balance between the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and state laws on property rights and nonprofits.
“It’s not the amount of money that makes the case important,” Scott Brister, a lawyer for the Fort Worth diocese, told the Austin American-Statesman.
The Fort Worth diocese is led by conservative Bishop Jack Iker. When he led his group’s split, Iker claimed his diocese held the deeds to all church properties, including the 48 congregations that joined him and the eight that remained loyal to the national church. Eventually, some of the local disputes were settled. But in 2009, the national Episcopal Church filed suit arguing all the properties belonged to the denomination.
A state district judge sided with the national church, giving Iker 30 days to surrender the properties. That was put on hold as Iker appealed to the state Supreme Court. The high court is not under a deadline to issue a ruling.
The breakaway faction claims the court needs to view the properties under a “neutral principles” standard created by the U.S. Supreme Court. That standard determines ownership by looking at property records and has been used in most states to resolve church disputes.
The national Episcopal Church, though, argues the court should resolve the dispute based on the “deference” standard, also developed by the U.S. Supreme Court. This asks the court to consider the church hierarchy and who it has chosen to lead it. The national Episcopal Church argues, based on this, that Iker is not an official church leader.