Church spat might head to Supreme Court
By Linda Quinlan, staff writer
Fri Sep 12, 2008, 04:02 PM EDT
In a property dispute stemming from a rift with the Episcopal Church of America, the attorney for All Saints Anglican Church urged New York’s Court of Appeals Tuesday to set aside a previous decision from a lower court that essentially allowed the removal of the congregation from its longtime church building at 759 Winona Blvd. in Irondequoit.
It’s a case that might not be settled until it gets to the U.S. Supreme Court.
During court proceedings Tuesday, parish attorney Eugene Van Voorhis argued that secular state law — and not ecclesiastical canon — should govern the transfer of property in New York.
“All of the funds that bought the church, built the church, bought the land — all was donated by parishioners,” Van Voorhis said in court. “This has to do with legal principles ... It has nothing to do with doctrinal disputes.”
The point, Van Voorhis said Wednesday morning, is that the lower court applied religious canons — or law — rather than the secular laws of New York state to determine property ownership, and that is a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment regarding the separation of church and state.
Because the Episcopal Diocese of Rochester got a summary judgment from the Appellate Division courts, “the All Saints parish never got its day in court,” Van Voorhis added. “The real issue is whether All Saints held its property in trust for the diocese or not.”
With about 100 similar cases in courts around the country, Episcopal Diocese attorney Thomas P. Smith said the All Saints case appeared to be the first to reach a state’s top court. The Court of Appeals is New York’s highest court.
At issue is whether the parishioners who built the church own it, or whether they simply held it in trust for the Episcopal Church of the USA and the diocese under the national church’s 1979 Dennis Canons, Smith said.
“These were Episcopalians giving to an Episcopal church and not to a free church,” Smith said. “They’re free to leave and join the church of Uganda or wherever, but not take church property.”
Trial and mid-level appeals courts sided with the diocese, concluding it was entitled to the property under canon rules.
A rift developed between the Irondequoit parish and the Episcopal Church of the USA after the 2003 ordination of its first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire.
“That (ordination) was just a precipitating factor,” said the Rev. David Harnish, who is rector for All Saints. “We’re way beyond that now.”
There was no formal split until the Rochester diocese voted at a convention Nov. 19, 2005, to expel All Saints from the local Episcopal diocese.
“All Saints didn’t leave voluntarily,” Van Voorhis said.
“All along, the core issue really has had to do with whether we could be the church we were organized in 1925 to be for ministry and mission and not live under the threat of the diocese taking major punitive action against us,” Harnish said. “And, indeed, in 2005, hostile action was taken against us as a parish, while we have always just wanted to be faithful as a Christian church.”
Harnish notified the diocese about a month after the 2005 vote that the parish had been placed under the authority of Archbishop Henry Orombi of the Anglican Church of Uganda. It is now called All Saints Anglican Church and holds its worship services at 10 a.m. Sundays in the chapel at Reformation Lutheran Church, 111 N. Chestnut St., in downtown Rochester.
After what Van Voorhis calls “all the fuss and feather,” the diocese and All Saints congregation did agree to sell the Irondequoit church building, which is at the corner of Winona and Chapel Hill Drive.
The diocese subsequently sold the building to another Protestant denomination, Trinity Communion Church, for about $475,000. Smith said the diocese is holding the funds, depending on how the Court of Appeals rules.
If the Court of Appeals rules in favor of All Saints, the proceeds from the sale could come to the local congregation, which is already considering building a new church.
“We’re examining whether there’s a calling to be a more regional church or return to our Irondequoit roots,” Harnish said.
He said congregations like All Saints are combining now into what is called the Common Cause Partnership, The Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, that is expected to lead toward a new Anglican church in North America that would be different from the Episcopal Church.
“What we’ve been involved in from the beginning is a true reformation of the church that’s emerging,” Harnish said.
Van Voorhis expects the Court of Appeals decision could take a couple of months. Regardless of the decision, both he and Brown agreed the case could eventually go to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Includes reporting by Michael Virtanen of the Associated Press. Contact Linda Quinlan at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 350, or at email@example.com.
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