Supreme Court of California Justia
Citation 45 Cal. 4th 467, 198 P.3d 66, 87 Cal. Rptr. 3d 275

Episcopal Church Cases

Filed 1/5/09

IN THE SUPREME COURT OF CALIFORNIA

)

S155094
EPISCOPAL CHURCH CASES.
Ct.App. 4/3
G036096, G036408 &
G036868
Orange
County
JCCP No. 4392

In this case, a local church has disaffiliated itself from a larger, general
church with which it had been affiliated. Both the local church and the general
church claim ownership of the local church building and the property on which the
building stands. The parties have asked the courts of this state to resolve this
dispute. When secular courts are asked to resolve an internal church dispute over
property ownership, obvious dangers exist that the courts will become
impermissibly entangled with religion. Nevertheless, when called on to do so,
secular courts must resolve such disputes. We granted review primarily to decide
how the secular courts of this state should resolve disputes over church property.
State courts must not decide questions of religious doctrine; those are for
the church to resolve. Accordingly, if resolution of the property dispute involves a
doctrinal dispute, the court must defer to the position of the highest ecclesiastical
authority that has decided the doctrinal point. But to the extent the court can
resolve the property dispute without reference to church doctrine, it should use
what the United States Supreme Court has called the “neutral principles of law”
1


approach. (Jones v. Wolf (1979) 443 U.S. 595, 597.) The court should consider
sources such as the deeds to the property in dispute, the local church’s articles of
incorporation, the general church’s constitution, canons, and rules, and relevant
statutes, including statutes specifically concerning religious property, such as
Corporations Code section 9142.
Applying the neutral principles of law approach, we conclude that the
general church, not the local church, owns the property in question. Although the
deeds to the property have long been in the name of the local church, that church
agreed from the beginning of its existence to be part of the greater church and to
be bound by its governing documents. These governing documents make clear
that church property is held in trust for the general church and may be controlled
by the local church only so long as that local church remains a part of the general
church. When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not
have the right to take the church property with it.
We must also resolve the preliminary procedural question of whether this
action is subject to a special motion to dismiss under Code of Civil Procedure
section 425.16 — generally called an “anti-SLAPP motion.”1 We conclude that
this action is not subject to an anti-SLAPP motion. Although protected activity
arguably lurks in the background of this case, the actual dispute concerns property
ownership rather than any such protected activity. Accordingly, this action is not
one “arising from” protected activity within the meaning of Code of Civil
Procedure section 425.16, subdivision (b)(1). Hence, that provision does not
apply.

1
The acronym “SLAPP” stands for “strategic lawsuit against public
participation.” (See Equilon Enterprises v. Consumer Cause, Inc. (2002) 29
Cal.4th 53, 57 & fn. 1.)
2


We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal, which reached the same
conclusions, although not always for the same reasons.
I. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
“The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America . . . ,
organized in 1789, was the product of secession of the Anglican church in the
colonies from the Church of England, the latter church itself being the product of
secession from the Church of Rome in 1534.” (Protestant Episcopal Church v.
Barker (1981) 115 Cal.App.3d 599, 606.) The church (hereafter the Episcopal
Church) is governed by a general convention and a presiding bishop. In the
United States, the Episcopal Church is divided geographically into dioceses,
including the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles (Los Angeles Diocese). Each
diocese is governed by a diocesan convention and a bishop. A diocese is itself
divided into missions and parishes, which are individual churches where members
meet to worship. A parish is governed by a rector and a board of elected lay
persons called the vestry. (See Protestant Episcopal Church v. Barker, supra, at
pp. 606-607.) One such parish within the Los Angeles Diocese was St. James
Parish in Newport Beach (St. James Parish).
St. James Parish began as a mission of the Episcopal Church in 1946. In
1947, members of the mission sought permission from the Los Angeles Diocese to
organize as a parish. The members’ handwritten application “promise[d] and
declare[d] that the said Parish shall be forever held under, and conform to and be
bound by, the Ecclesiastical authority of the Bishop of Los Angeles, and of his
successor in office, the Constitution and Canons of the [Episcopal Church], and
the Constitution and Canons of the Diocese of Los Angeles.” Articles of
Incorporation of St. James Parish, filed with the California Secretary of State on
March 1, 1949, stated that the corporation was formed “[t]o establish and maintain
a Parish which shall form a constituent part of the Diocese of Los Angeles in [the
3
Episcopal Church]; and so that the Constitution and Canons, Rules, Regulations
and Discipline of said Church . . . and the Constitution and Canons in the Diocese
of Los Angeles, for the time being shall, unless they be contrary to the laws of this
State, always form a part of the By-Laws and Articles of Incorporation of the
corporation hereby formed and shall prevail against and govern anything herein
contained that may appear repugnant to such Constitutions, Canons, Rules,
Regulations and Discipline . . . .” In 1991, St. James Parish amended its articles of
incorporation, but it did not modify these provisions.
In 1950, the “Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Los Angeles”
deeded the property on which the church building stands to St. James Parish for
consideration of “less than $100.00.” The deeds to the property have been in the
name of the local church ever since.
Canon II.6 of the canons of the general convention of the Episcopal Church
provides: “Sec. 1. No Church or Chapel shall be consecrated until the Bishop
shall have been sufficiently satisfied that the building and the ground on which it
is erected are secured for ownership and use by a Parish, Mission, Congregation,
or Institution affiliated with this Church and subject to its Constitution and
Canons.
“Sec. 2. It shall not be lawful for any Vestry, Trustees, or other body
authorized by laws of any State or Territory to hold property for any Diocese,
Parish or Congregation, to encumber or alienate any dedicated and consecrated
Church or Chapel, or any Church or Chapel which has been used solely for Divine
Service, belonging to the Parish or Congregation which they represent, without the
previous consent of the Bishop, acting with the advice and consent of the Standing
Committee of the Diocese.
4
“Sec. 3. No dedicated and consecrated Church or Chapel shall be removed,
taken down, or otherwise disposed of for any worldly or common use, without the
previous consent of the Standing Committee of the Diocese.
“Sec. 4. Any dedicated and consecrated Church or Chapel shall be subject
to the trust declared with respect to real and personal property held by any Parish,
Mission, or Congregation as set forth in Canon I.7.4.”
The record shows, and no one disputes, that the Episcopal Church first
adopted the original versions of sections 2 and 3 of Canon II.6 in 1868. It added
section 1 of that Canon in 1871 and section 4 in 1979 when it amended Canon I.7.
In 1979, in apparent response to that year’s United States Supreme Court
opinion in Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, the Episcopal Church added section
4 to Canon I.7 (Canon I.7.4), which provides: “All real and personal property held
by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this
Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is
located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and
authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such
property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remains a part
of, and subject to, this Church and its Constitution and Canons.”
Recently, as a result of a doctrinal dispute, St. James Parish disaffiliated
itself from the Episcopal Church. It appears that the dispute leading to the
decision to disaffiliate arose after the national church ordained an openly gay man
as a bishop in New Hampshire in 2003. Some members of the Episcopal Church,
including members of St. James Parish, disagreed with this ordination. In July
2004, the board of St. James Parish voted to end its affiliation with the Episcopal
Church and to affiliate with the Anglican Church of Uganda. A majority of the
congregation voted to support the decision. After the disaffiliation, a further
dispute arose as to who owned the church building that St. James Parish used for
5
worship and the property on which the building stands — the local church that left
the Episcopal Church or the higher church authorities.
To resolve this dispute, the Los Angeles Diocese and various individuals,
including a dissenter from the decision by St. James Parish to disaffiliate
(hereafter collectively Los Angeles Diocese), sued various individuals connected
with St. James Parish (defendants) alleging eight property-recovery-related causes
of action. Later, the national Episcopal Church successfully sought to intervene
on the side of the Los Angeles Diocese and filed its own complaint in intervention
against defendants. In essence, both sides in this litigation, i.e., defendants on one
side, and the Los Angeles Diocese and Episcopal Church allied on the other side,
claim ownership of the local church building and property on which it stands.
The defendants moved to strike the Los Angeles Diocese’s lawsuit as a
SLAPP suit under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. The trial court granted
the motion and dismissed the action without leave to amend, finding both that the
action was a SLAPP suit and that the plaintiffs had not established a probability
that they would prevail. The court later sustained without leave to amend
defendants’ demurrer to the Episcopal Church’s complaint in intervention and
dismissed that action. The Los Angeles Diocese and the Episcopal Church
appealed the dismissals. The Court of Appeal consolidated the appeals and
reversed the judgments. That court ruled that the action was not a SLAPP suit
subject to the special motion to strike, and that the higher church authorities, not
defendants, own the disputed property.
We granted review to decide both whether this action is subject to the
special motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 and the
merits of the church property dispute.
6
II. DISCUSSION
A. Special Motion to Strike Under Code of Civil Procedure Section
425.16
Before considering the merits of the property dispute, we must decide a
preliminary procedural question. Subdivision (b)(1) of Code of Civil Procedure
section 425.16 (section 425.16) provides: “A cause of action against a person
arising from any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition
or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection
with a public issue shall be subject to a special motion to strike, unless the court
determines that the plaintiff has established that there is a probability that the
plaintiff will prevail on the claim.” Defendants filed a special motion to strike
under this section — a “so-called anti-SLAPP motion.” (Ketchum v. Moses (2001)
24 Cal.4th 1122, 1131.) The trial court found that section 425.16 governs the
action the Los Angeles Diocese filed and, further finding the plaintiffs had not
shown a probability they would prevail, granted the special motion to strike. The
Court of Appeal concluded that the action was not a SLAPP suit. We agree with
the Court of Appeal.
“[S]ection 425.16 requires that a court engage in a two-step process when
determining whether a defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion should be granted. First,
the court decides whether the defendant has made a threshold showing that the
challenged cause of action is one ‘arising from’ protected activity. (§ 425.16,
subd. (b)(1).) If the court finds such a showing has been made, it then must
consider whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the
claim.” (City of Cotati v. Cashman (2002) 29 Cal.4th 69, 76.) Defendants argue
that this action arose from their protected activity in first expressing disagreement
with the higher church authorities regarding church governance and then
disaffiliating from the general church.
7
The Los Angeles Diocese’s complaint did allege facts concerning the
reasons defendants decided to disaffiliate from the greater church. Nevertheless,
we conclude the action did not arise from protected activity within the meaning of
section 425.16. As the Court of Appeal aptly stated, “The flaw in this thinking is
that it confuses the motivation for the disaffiliation with the claims made by the
general church about the use of church property. [¶] . . . [I]t makes no difference
why defendants are disaffiliating; the point is they are being sued for asserting
control over the local parish property to the exclusion of a right to control
asserted by plaintiffs.”
“[T]he mere fact that an action was filed after protected activity took place
does not mean the action arose from that activity for the purposes of the anti-
SLAPP statute. [Citation.] Moreover, that a cause of action arguably may have
been ‘triggered’ by protected activity does not entail that it is one arising from
such. [Citation.] In the anti-SLAPP context, the critical consideration is whether
the cause of action is based on the defendant’s protected free speech or petitioning
activity.” (Navellier v. Sletten (2002) 29 Cal.4th 82, 89.) In filing this action, the
Los Angeles Diocese sought to resolve a property dispute. The property dispute is
based on the fact that both sides claim ownership of the same property. This
dispute, and not any protected activity, is “the gravamen or principal thrust” of the
action. (Martinez v. Metabolife Internat., Inc. (2003) 113 Cal.App.4th 181, 193.)
The additional fact that protected activity may lurk in the background — and may
explain why the rift between the parties arose in the first place — does not
transform a property dispute into a SLAPP suit. Accordingly, the trial court erred
in treating this as a SLAPP suit subject to section 425.16’s special motion to
dismiss.
8
B. Resolving the Dispute Over the Church Property
Both lower courts also decided the merits of the dispute over ownership of
the local church — the trial court in favor of the local church and the Court of
Appeal in favor of the general church. We will also decide this question, which
the parties as well as various amici curiae have fully briefed. We will first
consider what method the secular courts of this state should use to resolve disputes
over church property. We will then apply that method to resolve the dispute of
this case.
1. How California Courts Should Resolve Disputes Over Church
Property
Decisions from both this court and the United States Supreme Court have
made clear that, when asked to do so, secular courts may, indeed must, resolve
internal church disputes over ownership of church property. As the high court put
it in the seminal 19th-century case involving a church property dispute, “an appeal
is made to the secular authority; the courts when so called on must perform their
functions as in other cases. [¶] Religious organizations come before us in the
same attitude as other voluntary associations for benevolent or charitable
purposes, and their rights of property, or of contract, are equally under the
protection of the law, and the actions of their members subject to its restraints.”
(Watson v. Jones (1871) 80 U.S. 679, 714.) Similarly, in its most recent decision
involving a church property dispute, the court stated, “There can be little doubt
about the general authority of civil courts to resolve this question. The State has
an obvious and legitimate interest in the peaceful resolution of property disputes,
and in providing a civil forum where the ownership of church property can be
determined conclusively.” (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 602.) (For cases
from this court, see, e.g., Rosicrucian Fellow v. Rosicrucian Etc. Ch. (1952) 39
Cal.2d 121, 131; Wheelock v. First Presb. Church (1897) 119 Cal. 477, 482.)
9
But when called on to resolve church property disputes, secular courts must
not entangle themselves in disputes over church doctrine or infringe on the right to
free exercise of religion. In this regard, the United States Supreme Court has
made two points clear: (1) how state courts resolve church property disputes is a
matter of state law; but (2) the method a state chooses must not violate the First
Amendment to the United States Constitution.2 “[T]he First Amendment prohibits
civil courts from resolving church property disputes on the basis of religious
doctrine and practice. [Citations.] As a corollary to this commandment, the
Amendment requires that civil courts defer to the resolution of issues of religious
doctrine or polity by the highest court of a hierarchical church organization.
[Citations.] Subject to these limitations, however, the First Amendment does not
dictate that a State must follow a particular method of resolving church property
disputes. Indeed, ‘a State may adopt any one of various approaches for settling
church property disputes so long as it involves no consideration of doctrinal
matters, whether the ritual and liturgy of worship or the tenets of faith.’ ” (Jones
v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 602, quoting Md. & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Ch.
(1970) 396 U.S. 367, 368 (conc. opn. of Brennan, J.).)
The high court found invalid, for example, a method used in Georgia
whereby “the right to the property previously used by the local churches was made
to turn on a civil court jury decision as to whether the general church abandoned
or departed from the tenets of faith and practice it held at the time the local
churches affiliated with it.” (Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, supra, 393 U.S.

2
As relevant here, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
(First Amendment) provides: “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” (See
Kedroff v. St. Nicholas Cathedral (1952) 344 U.S. 94, 100, fn. 5.) Although the
amendment refers solely to Congress, its restraints apply to the states through the
Fourteenth Amendment. (See Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church (1969) 393
U.S. 440, 441.)
10


at p. 441.) The court held that “the civil courts [have] no role in determining
ecclesiastical questions in the process of resolving property disputes.” (Id. at p.
447.) It explained that the First Amendment “commands civil courts to decide
church property disputes without resolving underlying controversies over religious
doctrine. Hence, States, religious organizations, and individuals must structure
relationships involving church property so as not to require the civil courts to
resolve ecclesiastical questions.” (Id. at p. 449.) The court concluded that the
“departure-from-doctrine” approach “requires the civil court to determine matters
at the very core of a religion — the interpretation of particular church doctrines
and the importance of those doctrines to the religion. Plainly, the First
Amendment forbids civil courts from playing such a role.” (Id. at p. 450; see also
Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich (1976) 426 U.S. 696, 698 [“inquiries
made by the Illinois Supreme Court into matters of ecclesiastical cognizance and
polity and the court’s actions pursuant thereto contravened the First and
Fourteenth Amendments”].) The court remanded the matter to the Georgia
Supreme Court to develop a new method for resolving church property disputes.
(Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, supra, at pp. 450-452.)
The high court has approved two methods for adjudicating church property
disputes. The first approach is one the court itself adopted in the 19th century.
(Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. 679.)3 This approach is often called the
“principle of government” approach. (See Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. at p.
725.) The Watson v. Jones court distinguished between two types of church
disputes. One “has reference to the case of a church of a strictly congregational or

3
As the high court later explained, Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. 679,
predated Erie R. Co. v. Tompkins (1938) 304 U.S. 64 and, accordingly, “it was
based on general federal law rather than the state law of the forum in which it was
brought.” (Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, supra, 426 U.S. at p. 710,
fn. 5.)
11


independent organization, governed solely within itself . . . ; and to property held
by such a church, either by way of purchase or donation, with no other specific
trust attached to it in the hands of the church than that it is for the use of that
congregation as a religious society.” (Id. at pp. 724-725.) “In such cases,” the
court explained, “where there is a schism which leads to a separation into distinct
and conflicting bodies, the rights of such bodies to the use of the property must be
determined by the ordinary principles which govern voluntary associations.” (Id.
at p. 725.) Another type, which the court said “is the one which is oftenest found
in the courts,” involves a hierarchical structure, i.e., a “religious congregation
which is itself part of a large and general organization of some religious
denomination, with which it is more or less intimately connected by religious
views and ecclesiastical government.” (Id. at p. 726.) In the latter case, the court
said, “we are bound to look at the fact that the local congregation is itself but a
member of a much larger and more important religious organization, and is under
its government and control, and is bound by its orders and judgments.” (Id. at pp.
726-727.)
The court adopted this test for a hierarchical church: “[W]henever the
questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been
decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been
carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on
them, in their application to the case before them.” (Watson v. Jones, supra, 80
U.S. at p. 727; see also Serbian Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, supra, 426 U.S.
at p. 710 [quoting this language and describing it as the rule applicable to
“hierarchical churches”].)
The second approach the high court has approved is what it called the
“neutral principles of law” approach. (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 597.)
The court first mentioned such a possible approach in Presbyterian Church v. Hull
12
Church, supra, 393 U.S. 440: “And there are neutral principles of law, developed
for use in all property disputes, which can be applied without ‘establishing’
churches to which property is awarded.” (Id. at p. 449.) A year later, in a brief
per curiam opinion, the high court upheld Maryland’s resolution of a church
property dispute that “relied upon provisions of state statutory law governing the
holding of property by religious corporations, upon language in the deeds
conveying the properties in question to the local church corporations, upon the
terms of the charters of the corporations, and upon provisions in the constitution of
the General Eldership pertinent to the ownership and control of church property.”
(Md. & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Ch., supra, 396 U.S. at p. 367, fn. omitted.)4
Because this approach “involved no inquiry into religious doctrine,” the high court
dismissed the appeal as one involving no substantial federal question. (396 U.S. at
p. 368; see also id. at p. 370 (conc. opn. of Brennan, J.) [discussing the neutral
principles approach in greater detail].)

4
Although the high court originally referred to “neutral principles of law,
developed for use in all property disputes” (Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church,
supra, 393 U.S. at p. 449), it later made clear that such neutral principles may
include application of statutes specifically governing religious property. (Md. &
Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Ch.
, supra, 396 U.S. at p. 367; see also id. at p. 370
(conc. opn. of Brennan, J.).) As the high court explained in Jones v. Wolf, supra,
443 U.S. at pages 602-603, “The neutral-principles approach was approved in
[Md. & Va. Churches v. Sharpsburg Ch., supra], an appeal from a judgment of
the Court of Appeals of Maryland settling a local church property dispute on the
basis of the language of the deeds, the terms of the local church charters, the state
statutes governing the holding of church property
, and the provisions in the
constitution of the general church concerning the ownership and control of church
property.” (Italics added.)

A statute governing specifically church property obviously is not developed
for use in all property disputes, but, as the high court has made clear, it may still
be considered in applying neutral principles of law as that court defines the term.
Such a statute is — or must be — neutral in the sense that it does not require state
courts to resolve questions of religious doctrine.
13


The high court definitively approved the neutral principles approach in
Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, a 1979 decision that is the high court’s most
recent on this subject and, hence, is of critical importance to the instant dispute.
After that court had invalidated Georgia’s method for resolving church property
disputes (Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, supra, 393 U.S. 440), Georgia
adopted a new approach. The high court considered that new approach in Jones v.
Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595. It summarized the issue at the outset: “This case
involves a dispute over the ownership of church property following a schism in a
local church affiliated with a hierarchical church organization. The question for
decision is whether civil courts, consistent with the First and Fourteenth
Amendments to the Constitution, may resolve the dispute on the basis of ‘neutral
principles of law,’ or whether they must defer to the resolution of an authoritative
tribunal of the hierarchical church.” (Id. at p. 597.)
The high court reviewed three Georgia Supreme Court opinions that
postdated the remand in Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, supra, 393 U.S.
440. It explained that after the remand, the Georgia Supreme Court “adopted what
is now known as the ‘neutral principles of law’ method for resolving church
property disputes. The [Georgia Supreme Court] examined the deeds to the
properties, the state statutes dealing with implied trusts [citation], and the Book of
Church Order to determine whether there was any basis for a trust in favor of the
general church.” (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 600.) In all three of the
Georgia Supreme Court cases, the deeds to the disputed property were in the name
of the local church. In two of them, including the case the Jones v. Wolf court was
reviewing, no statute or church document created a trust in favor of the general
church. In those cases, the Georgia Supreme Court awarded the property to the
local church. (Id. at pp. 600-601.) In the third case, however, involving a dispute
within the United Methodist Church, the high court explained that the Georgia
14
Supreme Court “observed, however, that the constitution of The United Methodist
Church, its Book of Discipline, contained an express trust provision in favor of the
general church. On this basis, the church property was awarded to the
denominational church.” (Ibid., fn. omitted.)
The Jones v. Wolf court upheld Georgia’s neutral principles approach,
although it remanded the particular case to the Georgia Supreme Court for further
proceedings on a narrow point irrelevant to the issue of this case.5 It recognized
advantages inherent in that approach. “The primary advantages of the neutral-
principles approach are that it is completely secular in operation, and yet flexible
enough to accommodate all forms of religious organization and polity. The
method relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and
property law familiar to lawyers and judges. It thereby promises to free civil
courts completely from entanglement in questions of religious doctrine, polity, and
practice. Furthermore, the neutral-principles analysis shares the peculiar genius of
private-law systems in general — flexibility in ordering private rights and
obligations to reflect the intentions of the parties. Through appropriate
reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify what is to
happen to church property in the event of a particular contingency, or what
religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal

5
The Georgia Supreme Court had also resolved a dispute over which of two
local factions properly represented the local church. The high court was
concerned that the Georgia Supreme Court had not adequately explained its
reasoning. Specifically, the Georgia Supreme Court did not explain whether it
simply applied majority rule — which the high court indicated would be
permissible — or whether the decision “involve[d] considerations of religious
doctrine and polity” — which the high court indicated would not be permissible.
(Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 608.) The high court remanded the matter to
permit the Georgia Supreme Court to articulate the reasons it concluded one
particular faction represented the local church. (Id. at pp. 609-610.) This case
presents no such issue.
15


controversy. In this manner, a religious organization can ensure that a dispute
over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires
of the members.” (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at pp. 603-604.)
The court also recognized potential difficulties inherent in the neutral
principles approach. “The neutral-principles method, at least as it has evolved in
Georgia, requires a civil court to examine certain religious documents, such as a
church constitution, for language of trust in favor of the general church. In
undertaking such an examination, a civil court must take special care to scrutinize
the document in purely secular terms, and not to rely on religious precepts in
determining whether the document indicates that the parties have intended to
create a trust. In addition, there may be cases where the deed, the corporate
charter, or the constitution of the general church incorporates religious concepts in
the provisions relating to the ownership of property. If in such a case the
interpretation of the instruments of ownership would require the civil court to
resolve a religious controversy, then the court must defer to the resolution of the
doctrinal issue by the authoritative ecclesiastical body.” (Jones v. Wolf, supra,
443 U.S. at p. 604.)
Despite these potential difficulties, the high court concluded that “the
promise of nonentanglement and neutrality inherent in the neutral-principles
approach more than compensates for what will be occasional problems in
application. These problems, in addition, should be gradually eliminated as
recognition is given to the obligation of ‘States, religious organizations, and
individuals [to] structure relationships involving church property so as not to
require the civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical questions.’ [Citation.] We
therefore hold that a State is constitutionally entitled to adopt neutral principles of
law as a means of adjudicating a church property dispute.” (Jones v. Wolf, supra,
16
443 U.S. at p. 604, quoting Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, supra, 393 U.S.
at p. 449.)
Early cases from this court resolving church property disputes generally
cited Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. 679, the only then existing United States
Supreme Court decision on the subject. (See Rosicrucian Fellow v. Rosicrucian
Etc. Ch., supra, 39 Cal.2d at p. 131; Committee of Missions v. Pacific Synod
(1909) 157 Cal. 105, 122; Horsman v. Allen (1900) 129 Cal. 131, 135; Wheelock
v. First Presb. Church, supra, 119 Cal. at p. 485; Baker v. Ducker (1889) 79 Cal.
365, 374.) This court has not had occasion to consider the neutral principles
approach in a church property case since its development.6 The Courts of Appeal
have, however, adopted and consistently used it. (Concord Christian Center v.
Open Bible Standard Churches (2005) 132 Cal.App.4th 1396, 1411; California-
Nevada Annual Conf. of the United Methodist Church v. St. Luke’s United
Methodist Church (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th 754, 762-764; Guardian Angel Polish
Nat. Catholic Church of L.A., Inc. v. Grotnik (2004) 118 Cal.App.4th 919, 930;
Singh v. Singh (2004) 114 Cal.App.4th 1264, 1280-1281; Korean United
Presbyterian Church v. Presbytery of the Pacific (1991) 230 Cal.App.3d 480, 497-
499, 503; Protestant Episcopal Church v. Barker, supra, 115 Cal.App.4th at p.
615; Presbytery of Riverside v. Community Church of Palm Springs (1979) 89
Cal.App.3d 910, 919-923 (Presbytery of Riverside); In re Metropolitan Baptist

6
In a case not involving a church property dispute, we described “the rule
that the state must accept the decision of appropriate church authorities on . . .
matters [of religious doctrine and internal church governance]” as “the rule of the
so-called church property cases.” (Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v.
Superior Court
(2004) 32 Cal.4th 527, 541.) As Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S.
595, makes clear, this rule does indeed apply to church property cases even under
the neutral principles approach. Because no church property dispute existed in
Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court, we did not consider
whether neutral principles of law can be used to resolve such disputes.
17


Church of Richmond, Inc. (1975) 48 Cal.App.3d 850, 858-859; see also
Metropolitan Philip v. Steiger (2000) 82 Cal.App.4th 923, 929, fn. 7 [not deciding
whether the neutral principles approach is valid because the case turned on an
ecclesiastical dispute requiring the court to defer to the ecclesiastical authorities].)
The Court of Appeal in this case criticized these Court of Appeal decisions
for, in its view, violating principles of stare decisis. The Court of Appeal believed
that early cases of this court specifically adopted the principle of government
approach, thus precluding the more recent Courts of Appeal from adopting the
neutral principles approach. We disagree. As explained in the Court of Appeal
opinion containing the most thorough examination of this question (Presbytery of
Riverside, supra, 89 Cal.App.3d 910), the principle of government method of
Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. 679, and the neutral principles method of Jones v.
Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, are not mutually exclusive, but can be reconciled.7 In
any event, this court unquestionably has authority to adopt the neutral principles
approach.
Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. at page 727, held that secular courts must
accept as binding any church adjudication regarding “questions of discipline, or of
faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law . . . .” As Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443
U.S. 595, makes clear, this remains the rule. Secular courts may not decide
questions involving church doctrine or faith. But this rule does not prevent courts
from using neutral principles of law to resolve a church property dispute that does
not turn on questions of church doctrine: “However, when the dispute to be
resolved is essentially ownership or right to possession of property, the civil courts

7
The opinion of Presbytery of Riverside, supra, 89 Cal.App.3d 910, actually
predated Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, by a few months, but it considered
the discussion of “neutral principles of law” found in Presbyterian Church v. Hull
Church
, supra, 393 U.S. 440. (Presbytery of Riverside, supra, at pp. 920-924 &
fn. 2.)
18


appropriately adjudicate the controversy even though it may arise out of a dispute
over doctrine or other ecclesiastical question, provided the court can resolve the
property dispute without attempting to resolve the underlying ecclesiastical
controversy.” (Presbytery of Riverside, supra, 89 Cal.App.3d at p. 920.) As the
Presbytery of Riverside court explained, “[i]n Watson v. Jones the court was asked
to decree the termination of an implied trust because of alleged departures from
doctrine by the general church. (See Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, supra,
393 U.S. at p. 445.) Thus the dispute involved in the case was purely
ecclesiastical.” (Id. at p. 921.)
The Presbytery of Riverside court also discussed early decisions of this
court and concluded that, although they cited and applied the rule of Watson v.
Jones, supra, 80 U.S. 679, they do not preclude use of neutral principles of law to
decide church property disputes that do not turn on questions of church doctrine.
(Presbytery of Riverside, supra, 89 Cal.App.3d at pp. 922-923.) As did the court
in Protestant Episcopal Church v. Barker, supra, 115 Cal.App.3d at page 614 (and
implicitly the more recent Court of Appeal decisions using the neutral principles
approach), we find the discussion in Presbytery of Riverside, supra, 89 Cal.App.3d
910, persuasive. Subject to the proviso that secular courts may not decide
questions of church doctrine, we believe that California courts should use neutral
principles of law to decide church property disputes.
Accordingly, we conclude that secular courts called on to resolve church
property disputes should proceed as follows: State courts must not decide
questions of religious doctrine; those are for the church to resolve. Accordingly, if
resolution of a property dispute involves a point of doctrine, the court must defer
to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the point.
But to the extent the court can resolve a property dispute without reference to
church doctrine, it should apply neutral principles of law. The court should
19
consider sources such as the deeds to the property in dispute, the local church’s
articles of incorporation, the general church’s constitution, canons, and rules, and
relevant statutes, including statutes specifically concerning religious property,
such as Corporations Code section 9142. (See Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p.
600 [upholding Georgia’s use of such sources]; Md. & Va. Churches v.
Sharpsburg Ch., supra, 396 U.S. 367 [upholding Maryland’s use of such sources];
Protestant Episcopal Church v. Barker, supra, 115 Cal.App.3d at p. 621.)
2. Resolving the Dispute of This Case
St. James Parish holds record title to the property in question. That is the
fact that defendants rely on most heavily in claiming ownership. On the other
hand, from the beginning of its existence, St. James Parish promised to be bound
by the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church. Such commitment is
found in the original application to the higher church authorities to organize as a
parish and in the articles of incorporation. Canon I.7.4, adopted in 1979, provides
that property held by a local parish “is held in trust” for the general church and the
diocese in which the local church is located. The same canon states that the trust
does not limit the authority of the parish over the property “so long as the
particular Parish . . . remains a part of, and subject to, this Church and its
Constitution and Canons.” Other canons adopted long before St. James Parish
existed also contained substantial restrictions on the local use of church property.
The question before us is, which prevails — the fact that St. James Parish
holds record title to the property, or the facts that it is bound by the constitution
and canons of the Episcopal Church and the canons impress a trust in favor of the
general church? In deciding this question, we are not entirely free from
constitutional constraints. Once again, Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, is
important to this question. Although that decision permitted the states to use the
20
neutral principles approach, it also made clear that in applying that approach, state
courts must neither become entangled in religious matters nor, especially
important to the instant dispute, violate the First Amendment right to free exercise
of religion. Jones v. Wolf was a five-to-four decision, with the dissent arguing that
the First Amendment compels use of the principle-of-government approach of
Watson v. Jones, supra, 80 U.S. 679 — under which the higher church authorities
would necessarily win. Normally, the dissent would not be of great significance to
this court, because we are bound by the majority opinion concerning federal
constitutional questions. But the majority responded to some of the dissent’s
specific arguments. The dissent is important to give context and meaning to the
majority’s response.
The dissent argued that “in each case involving an intrachurch dispute —
including disputes over church property — the civil court must focus directly on
ascertaining, and then following, the decision made within the structure of church
governance. . . . [B]y recognizing the authoritative resolution reached within the
religious association, the civil court avoids interfering indirectly with the religious
governance of those who have formed the association and submitted themselves to
its authority.” (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 618, fn. omitted (dis. opn. of
Powell, J.).) The majority responded to this point, which it described as an
argument “that a rule of compulsory deference is necessary in order to protect the
free exercise rights ‘of those who have formed the association and submitted
themselves to its authority.’ ” (Jones v. Wolf, supra, at pp. 605-606.)
Significantly, the majority did not deny that free exercise rights require a secular
court to defer to decisions made within a religious association when local churches
have submitted themselves to the authority of that association. Rather, the
majority argued that the neutral principles approach is consistent with this
requirement.
21
The dissent’s argument, the Jones v. Wolf majority stated, “assumes that the
neutral-principles method would somehow frustrate the free-exercise rights of the
members of a religious association. Nothing could be further from the truth. The
neutral-principles approach cannot be said to ‘inhibit’ the free exercise of religion,
any more than do other neutral provisions of state law governing the manner in
which churches own property, hire employees, or purchase goods. Under the
neutral-principles approach, the outcome of a church property dispute is not
foreordained. At any time before the dispute erupts, the parties can ensure, if they
so desire, that the faction loyal to the hierarchical church will retain the church
property. They can modify the deeds or the corporate charter to include a right of
reversion or trust in favor of the general church. Alternatively, the constitution of
the general church can be made to recite an express trust in favor of the
denominational church. The burden involved in taking such steps will be
minimal. And the civil courts will be bound to give effect to the result indicated by
the parties, provided it is embodied in some legally cognizable form.” (Jones v.
Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 606, italics added.)
Shortly after this decision, and in apparent reaction to it, the Episcopal
Church added Canon I.7.4, which recites an express trust in favor of the
denominational church. This occurred some 25 years before the instant dispute
erupted. Defendants focus on the high court’s reference to what the “parties” can
do, and argue that Canon I.7.4, to be effective, had to have been enacted by the
parties — in other words, that some kind of agreement must have been reached
between the general church and St. James Parish (and presumably every other
parish in the country) ratifying Canon I.7.4. We do not so read the high court’s
words. Use of the passive voice in describing the possible “alternative[]” of
making the general church’s constitution recite the trust suggests the high court
intended that this could be done by whatever method the church structure
22
contemplated. Requiring a particular method to change a church’s constitution —
such as requiring every parish in the country to ratify the change — would infringe
on the free exercise rights of religious associations to govern themselves as they
see fit. It would impose a major, not a “minimal,” burden on the church
governance. (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 606.)
Thus, the high court’s discussion in Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at page
606, together with the Episcopal Church’s adoption of Canon I.7.4 in response,
strongly supports the conclusion that, once defendants left the general church, the
property reverted to the general church. Moreover, Canon I.7.4 is consistent with
earlier-enacted canons that, although not using the word “trust,” impose
substantial limitations on the local parish’s use of church property and give the
higher church authorities substantial authority over that property. For example,
permitting a disaffiliating local church to take the property with it when it
reaffiliates with a different church is inconsistent with the prohibition of Canon
II.6, section 2, against encumbering or alienating local property without the
previous consent of higher church authorities. Thus, a strong argument exists that
Canon I.7.4 merely codified what had long been implicit. As we discuss below,
this is the conclusion reached by some of the out-of-state decisions that awarded
property to the national Episcopal Church in similar disputes.
A California statutory provision that was enacted shortly after Jones v.
Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, and that is consistent with the language quoted above
from page 606 of that decision, also supports the conclusion that the property now
belongs to the general church. As relevant, subdivisions (c) and (d) of
Corporations Code section 9142 (section 9142), which were enacted in 1982
(Stats. 1982, ch. 242, § 1, p. 784), provide:
23
“(c) No assets of a religious corporation are or shall be deemed to be
impressed with any trust, express or implied, statutory or at common law unless
one of the following applies: [¶] . . .
“(2) Unless, and only to the extent that, the articles or bylaws of the
corporation, or the governing instruments of a superior religious body or general
church of which the corporation is a member, so expressly provide. [¶] . . .
“(d) Trusts created by paragraph (2) of subdivision (c) may be amended or
dissolved by amendment from time to time to the articles, bylaws, or governing
instruments creating the trusts. . . .” (Italics added.)
This statute appears to be the type of statute the United States Supreme
Court had in mind when it approved reliance on “provisions of state statutory law
governing the holding of property by religious corporations . . . .” (Md. & Va.
Churches v. Sharpsburg Ch., supra, 396 U.S. at p. 367, fn. omitted.) Justice
Brennan fleshed out the point in his concurring opinion in that case. He explained
that one possible approach to resolving church property disputes “is the passage of
special statutes governing church property arrangements in a manner that
precludes state interference in doctrine. Such statutes must be carefully drawn to
leave control of ecclesiastical polity, as well as doctrine, to church governing
bodies.” (Id. at p. 370 (conc. opn. of Brennan, J.).) Section 9142, subdivisions (c)
and (d), does not permit state interference in religious doctrine and leaves control
of ecclesiastical policy and doctrine to the church. Subdivision (c) of that section
permits the governing instruments of the general church to create an express trust
in church property, which Canon I.7.4 does. Subdivision (d) permits changing a
trust, but only if done in the instrument that created it. Canon I.7.4 has not been
amended. So it would appear that this statute also compels the conclusion that the
general church owns the property now that defendants have left the general
church.
24
Defendants argue that section 9142 states only a negative conditional, not a
positive imperative. In other words, in their view, the statutory provisions are
minimum requirements for impression of a trust on local religious property, and do
not necessarily exclude other requirements therefor. Defendants focus on the
grammatical construction of subdivision (c), and its repeated use of the word
“unless.” As defendants would have it, there is never a trust “unless” one of the
statutory provisions is present, but this does not mean there is always a trust when
one or more of the provisions is present. But this interpretation overlooks
subdivision (d) of section 9142. That subdivision provides that “[t]rusts created
by paragraph (2) of subdivision (c) may be amended or dissolved by amendment
from time to time to the articles, bylaws, or governing instruments creating the
trusts. . . .” (Italics added.) Thus, subdivision (d) appears clearly to indicate that,
under California law, a trust is created by compliance with any one of the
alternatives set forth in subdivision (c)(2), and it can only be altered or dissolved
by amending the creating instrument.
In short, St. James Parish agreed from the beginning of its existence to be
part of a greater denominational church and to be bound by that greater church’s
governing instruments. Those instruments make clear that a local parish owns
local church property in trust for the greater church and may use that property only
so long as the local church remains part of the greater church. Respect for the
First Amendment free exercise rights of persons to enter into a religious
association of their choice, as delineated in Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595 (as
well as the provisions of section 9142) requires civil courts to give effect to the
provisions and agreements of that religious association. To adapt a similar
conclusion in a recent Court of Appeal decision involving a different religious
association, “In summary, [St. James Parish] is bound by the constitution, laws,
rules and regulations of the [Episcopal Church]. Historically, it has accepted the
25
authority of the national church and submitted itself to the national church’s
jurisdiction.” (Guardian Angel Polish Nat. Catholic Church of L.A., Inc. v.
Grotnik, supra, 118 Cal.App.4th at p. 929; see also Korean United Presbyterian
Church v. Presbytery of the Pacific, supra, 230 Cal.App.3d 480 [reaching a
similar conclusion regarding a different religious association based in part on
section 9142 and a general church’s constitutional provision comparable to Canon
I.7.4].)
This conclusion is bolstered by a review of out-of-state cases that involved
similar church property disputes within the Episcopal Church and that, with near
unanimity, awarded the disputed property to the general church when a local
church disaffiliated itself from that general church. A typical case, and one cited
in some of the later cases, is Rector, Wardens v. Episcopal Church (Conn. 1993)
620 A.2d 1280. In that case, the court reviewed the history of the Episcopal
Church. It concluded that a local church that had withdrawn from the general
Episcopal Church, as well as the local church’s predecessors, “had agreed, as a
condition to their formation as ecclesiastical organizations affiliated with the
Diocese and [the Episcopal Church], to use and hold their property only for the
greater purposes of the church.” (Id. at p. 1292.) Specifically, it found that Canon
I.7.4 (which it called the “Dennis Canon”), “adopted in 1979 merely codified in
explicit terms a trust relationship that has been implicit in the relationship between
local parishes and dioceses since the founding of [the Episcopal Church] in 1789.”
(Ibid.) Accordingly, it found “a legally enforceable trust in favor of the general
church in the property claimed by the [local church].” (Id. at p. 1293.)
Other Episcopal Church cases reaching similar conclusions include Bishop
and Diocese of Colorado v. Mote (Colo. 1986) 716 P.2d 85; Episcopal Diocese of
Mass. v. Devine (Mass.App.Ct. 2003) 797 N.E.2d 916 (relying on Canon I.7.4 and
the fact the local church had agreed to accede to the general church’s canons);
26
Bennison v. Sharp (Mich.Ct.App. 1983) 329 N.W.2d 466; Protestant Episc.
Church, etc. v. Graves (N.J. 1980) 417 A.2d 19; The Diocese v. Trinity Epis.
Church (App.Div. 1999) 684 N.Y.S.2d 76, 81 (“[T]he ‘Dennis Canon’ amendment
expressly codifies a trust relationship which has implicitly existed between the
local parishes and their dioceses throughout the history of the Protestant Episcopal
Church,” citing Rector, Wardens v. Episcopal Church, supra, 620 A.2d 1280);
Daniel v. Wray (N.C.Ct.App. 2003) 580 S.E.2d 711 (relying on Canon I.7.4); In re
Church of St. James the Less (Pa. 2005) 888 A.2d 795 (relying on Canon I.7.4 and
citing Rector, Wardens v. Episcopal Church, supra, 620 A.2d 1280). The court in
Bjorkman v. Protestant Episcopal Church (Ky. 1988) 759 S.W.2d 583 awarded
the property to the local church, but there the dispute arose before the high court
decision of Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, the opinion did not mention Canon
I.7.4, and the decision has not been followed by other jurisdictions. These out-of-
state decisions are not binding on this court, but we find them persuasive,
especially in the aggregate.
Defendants rely in part on Protestant Episcopal Church v. Barker, supra,
115 Cal.App.3d 599, the only reported California case involving a property
dispute within the Episcopal Church. In that case, four local churches in Los
Angeles disaffiliated from the general Episcopal Church. The Court of Appeal,
over a dissent, awarded the disputed property to three of the local churches and to
the general church regarding the fourth local church. The factual difference that
caused the different results was that the three churches were incorporated before,
and the fourth after, a particular canon of the Los Angeles Diocese was adopted.
The dissent would have awarded all of the disputed property to the general church.
We need not decide whether the majority decision was correct based on the
specific record before it and the state of the law at the time, for it is
distinguishable, largely due to the passage of time. In that case, the dispute arose
27
and, indeed, the trial court judgment was rendered before (1) the decision in Jones
v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. 595, (2) the Episcopal Church adopted Canon I.7.4, and
(3) the Legislature enacted section 9142, subdivisions (c) and (d). The appellate
court in Barker did not mention any of the general church’s canons. Accordingly,
that decision does not control a dispute that, here, arose 25 years after the high
court decision and the adoption of Canon I.7.4. We note that several of the out-of-
state cases discussed above cite, but do not follow, Protestant Episcopal Church v.
Barker, supra, 115 Cal.App.3d 599.8
Defendants also cite California-Nevada Annual Conf. of the United
Methodist Church v. St. Luke’s United Methodist Church, supra, 121 Cal.App.4th
754 (St. Luke’s), which interpreted section 9142. The court in that case concluded
that there had been a trust in favor of the general church, but that the deeds to the
local property and the local church’s articles of incorporation, not the general
church’s governing instruments, created the trust. (See St. Luke’s, supra, at p. 770
[“The Book of Discipline [i.e., the general church’s governing instrument] did not,
by itself, ‘create’ the trust.”].) Accordingly, it concluded that the local church
could, and did, revoke the trust. (Id. at p. 771.) We need not decide whether St.
Luke’s was correct on its facts because, assuming its conclusion was factually
correct, the decision is distinguishable. Here, the general church’s canons, not
instruments of the local church, created the trust. The language of section 9142,
subdivision (d), requires any revocation of that trust to exist in the document that
created it. So, assuming the local church in St. Luke’s may have been able to

8
See Bishop and Diocese of Colorado v. Mote, supra, 716 P.2d at pages
108-109; id., footnote 17 (“[W]e find the holding in Barker inapplicable and
decline to follow it”); Rector, Wardens v. Episcopal Church, supra, 620 A.2d at
page 1285 (“declin[ing] to follow” Barker); Episcopal Diocese of Mass. v. Devine,
supra, 797 N.E.2d at page 924, footnote 21; Bennison v. Sharp, supra, 329
N.W.2d at pages 473-474.
28


revoke the trust of that case, nothing in section 9142 or the governing instruments
of the Episcopal Church suggests that defendants may do so in this case.
The St. Luke’s court also stated that “subdivision (c)(2) of Corporations
Code section 9142 does not authorize a general church to create a trust interest for
itself in property owned by a local church simply by issuing a rule declaring that
such a trust exists . . . .” (St. Luke’s, supra, 121 Cal.App.4th 754, 757.) As a
general proposition, this statement is inconsistent with section 9142, subdivision
(c)(2)’s plain language, and we disapprove it. Instead, we agree with the
assessment of the Court of Appeal in this case: “[I]n a hierarchically organized
church, the ‘general church’ can impress a trust on a local religious corporation of
which the local corporation is a ‘member’ if the governing instruments of that
superior religious body so provide.”
Defendants argue that such a reading of section 9142 “would
unconstitutionally promote and establish denominational religion.” We need not,
indeed, cannot consider all possible applications of section 9142, but as applied
here, the section is fully consistent with Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at page
606, and promotes the free exercise rights of persons to form and join a religious
association that is constructed and governed as they choose. Defendants also
suggest that the Episcopal Church did not properly adopt Canon I.7.4 under its
own rules. It is a bit late to argue that Canon I.7.4 was not effectively adopted, a
quarter of a century later, and, in light of the consistent conclusions of the out-of-
state cases that that canon is, indeed, part of the Episcopal Church’s governing
documents, the argument seems dubious at best. But, in any event, this is one of
those questions regarding “religious doctrine or polity” (or, as we phrased it in
Catholic Charities of Sacramento, Inc. v. Superior Court, supra, 32 Cal.4th at
page 541, “religious doctrine and internal church governance”) on which we must
defer to the greater church’s resolution. (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 602.)
29
Over the years, the Episcopal Church has consistently taken the position that
Canon I.7.4 was effectively adopted.
Defendants also rely on Evidence Code section 662, which provides, “The
owner of the legal title to property is presumed to be the owner of the full
beneficial title. This presumption may be rebutted only by clear and convincing
proof.” We need not decide how or whether this statute interacts with the more
specific section 9412 (or the First Amendment constraints that exist in this case),
because, as the Court of Appeal noted, “particularly when read in conjunction with
section 9142, canon I.7.4 is clear and convincing evidence rebutting any
presumption that the beneficial interest in the local church property is solely
controlled by the local parish corporation.”
Defendants state that, over the years, St. James Parish “purchased
additional parcels of property in its own name, with funds donated exclusively by
its members.” They contend that it would be unjust and contrary to the intent of
the members who, they argue, “acquired, built, improved, maintained, repaired,
cared for and used the real and personal property at issue for over fifty years,” to
cause the local parish to “los[e] its property simply because it has changed its
spiritual affiliation.” But the matter is not so clear. We may assume that St.
James Parish’s members did what defendants say they did for all this time. But
they did it for a local church that was a constituent member of a greater church and
that promised to remain so. Did they act over the years intending to contribute to
a church that was part of the Episcopal Church or to contribute to St. James Parish
even if it later joined a different church? It is impossible to say for sure. Probably
different contributors over the years would have had different answers if they had
thought about it and were asked. The only intent a secular court can effectively
discern is that expressed in legally cognizable documents. In this case, those
30
documents show that the local church agreed and intended to be part of a larger
entity and to be bound by the rules and governing documents of that greater entity.
For these reasons, we agree with the Court of Appeal’s conclusion
(although not with all of its reasoning) that when defendants disaffiliated from the
Episcopal Church, the local church property reverted to the general church. As
stated in one of the out-of-state cases involving the same Episcopal
Church, “[t]he individual defendants are free to disassociate themselves from [the
parish and the Episcopal Church] and to affiliate themselves with another religious
denomination. No court can interfere with or control such an exercise of
conscience. The problem lies in defendants’ efforts to take the church property
with them. This they may not do.” (Protestant Episc. Church, etc. v. Graves,
supra, 417 A.2d at p. 25.)
III. CONCLUSION
We affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeal.
CHIN,
J.
WE CONCUR:

GEORGE, C.J.
BAXTER, J.
WERDEGAR, J.
MORENO, J.
CORRIGAN, J.

31





CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION BY KENNARD, J.

I agree with the majority that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United
States of America (Episcopal Church) owns the property to which St. James Parish
in Newport Beach (St. James Parish) has held title since 1950. This conclusion is
compelled by Corporations Code section 9142, subdivision (c)(2). But I disagree
with the majority that this provision, which applies only to religious corporations,
reflects a “neutral principles of law” approach.
I
St. James Parish began in 1947 as a mission of the Episcopal Church. In
1949, it incorporated and became a parish of the Episcopal Church. Since 1950,
the parish has held the deed to the property on which the parish’s church building
stands. Ownership of the property is at issue here.
In 1979, the Episcopal Church added section 4 to its Canon I.7 to provide
that all property held by any of its parishes is held in trust for the Episcopal
Church. In 2004, St. James Parish ended its affiliation with the Episcopal Church,
and it amended its articles of incorporation to delete any reference to the Episcopal
Church.
Thereafter, the Episcopal Church, its Los Angeles Diocese, and a
congregation member who voted against the decision of the parish to disaffiliate
brought these actions, asserting that the property at issue was being held in trust
for the Episcopal Church. The trial court ruled for St. James Parish; the Court of
Appeal reversed. This court granted review.
1



II
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, made applicable to
the states through the Fourteenth Amendment (Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) 310
U.S. 296, 303-304), states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an
establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . .” Because of
the risks of inhibiting the free development of religion and entangling secular
interests in ecclesiastical concerns, the “First Amendment severely circumscribes
the role that civil courts may play in resolving church property disputes.”
(Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church (1969) 393 U.S. 440, 449.) In this regard,
the United States Supreme Court has identified two constitutionally permissible
approaches that civil courts may use when called upon to resolve disputes relating
to church property.
One is the “principle of government” approach: When the dispute involves
a hierarchical church, as here the Episcopal Church, civil courts must accept
decisions made at the highest level of the church hierarchy. (Watson v. Jones
(1871) 80 U.S. 679, 727.)
The other is the “neutral principles of law” approach. That concept, as used
in the context of a civil court’s resolution of church property disputes, simply
permits application of “objective, well-established concepts of trust and property
law familiar to lawyers and judges.” (Jones v. Wolf (1979) 443 U.S. 595, 603.)
These are “principles or rules of law ‘developed for use in all property disputes’
whether or not the litigants are religious associations or corporations.”
(Presbytery of Riverside v. Community Church of Palm Springs (1979) 89
Cal.App.3d 910, 923, fn. 2.)
The United States Supreme Court has left it to the states to decide which
approach to adopt. (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 602.)
In 1982, the California Legislature amended Corporations Code section
9142 by adding, as relevant here, subdivision (c)(2). That provision permits the
assets of a religious corporation to be made subject to a trust when “the articles or
2

bylaws of the corporation, or the governing instruments of a superior religious
body or general church of which the corporation is a member, so expressly
provide.” Thus, as the majority notes (maj. opn., ante, at pp. 23-24), through
legislative fiat a “superior religious body or general church” may unilaterally
create trusts in its favor over property held by the smaller church that was a
member of the general church when the trust was created. That occurred here
when in 1979 the Episcopal Church added section 4 to its Canon I.7 to unilaterally
provide that all property held by any parish is held in trust for the Episcopal
Church.
Applying California’s statute in resolving church property disputes, the
majority concludes that the Episcopal Church now is the owner of the St. James
Parish property in question. I agree.
But that conclusion is not based on neutral principles of law.1 No principle
of trust law exists that would allow the unilateral creation of a trust by the
declaration of a nonowner of property that the owner of the property is holding it
in trust for the nonowner. (California-Nevada Annual Conf. of the United
Methodist Church v. St. Luke’s United Methodist Church (2004) 121 Cal.App.4th
754, 769.) If a neutral principle of law approach were applied here, the Episcopal
Church might well lose because the 1950 deed to the disputed property is in the
name of St. James Parish,2 and the Episcopal Church’s 1979 declaration that the
parish was holding the property in trust for the Episcopal Church is of no legal
consequence.

1
In footnote 4, page 13, the majority asserts that neutral principles of law
“include application of statutes specifically governing religious property.” I
disagree. In the United States Supreme Court’s usage, neutral principles of law
refer to laws that apply in the same way regardless of whether property is church
property. (Jones v. Wolf, supra, 443 U.S. at p. 603 [The neutral-principles
approach “relies exclusively on objective, well-established concepts of trust and
property law familiar to lawyers and judges”].)
2
“The owner of the legal title to property is presumed to be the owner of the
full beneficial title.” (Evid. Code, § 662.)
3



But under the principle of government approach, the Episcopal Church
wins because that method makes the decision of the highest authority of a
hierarchical church, here the Episcopal Church, binding on a civil court. This
result is constitutional, but only because the dispute involves religious bodies and
then only because the principle of government approach, permissible under the
First Amendment, allows a state to give unbridled deference to the superior
religious body or general church.
In my view, Corporations Code section 9142 reflects the principle of
government approach. That statute allows a hierarchical church, such as the
Episcopal Church here, through its bylaws to unilaterally impose a trust on the
property of a local member parish. The statute does not state a neutral principle of
law; rather, it creates a special principle applicable solely to religious corporations.
KENNARD,
J.
4

See last page for addresses and telephone numbers for counsel who argued in Supreme Court.

Name of Opinion Episcopal Church Cases

__________________________________________________________________________________

Unpublished Opinion


Original Appeal
Original Proceeding
Review Granted
XXX 152 Cal.App.4th 808
Rehearing Granted

__________________________________________________________________________________

Opinion No.

S155094
Date Filed: January 5, 2009
__________________________________________________________________________________

Court:

Superior
County: Orange
Judge: David C. Velasquez

__________________________________________________________________________________

Attorneys for Appellant:

Holme Roberts & Owen, John R. Shiner, Brent E. Rychener; Horvitz & Levy, Frederic D. Cohen and
Jeremy B. Rosen for Plaintiffs and Appellants Jane Hyde Rasmussen, The Right Rev. Robert M. Anderson,
The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles and The Right Rev. J. Jon Bruno, Bishop
Diocesan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Law Offices of George S. Burns, George S. Burns, Kathryn M. Schwertfeger and John C. Ashby for the
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Synod of Southern California and Hawaii and the Presbytery of Hanmi
as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiffs and Appellants Jane Hyde Rasmussen, The Right Rev. Robert M.
Anderson, The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Los Angeles and The Right Rev. J. Jon
Bruno, Bishop Diocesan of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.

Goodwin Procter, David Booth Beers, Heather H. Anderson, Jeffrey David Skinner and Matthew J.
Wilshire for Intervener and Appellant The Episcopal Church.

Weil, Gotshal & Manges, Christopher J. Cox and Douglas E. Lumish for Clifton Kirkpatrick, Joey Mills,
Katherine J. Runyeon, Rev. Joseph Lee, Elder John Lococo, General Council on Finance and
Administration of the United Methodist Church, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, General Conference of the
Seventh-day Adventists, Christian and Missionary Alliance, International Church of the Foursquare Gospel
and Worldwide Church of God as Amici Curiae on behalf of Intervener and Appellant The Episcopal
Church.

Law Offices of Tony J. Tanke and Tony J. Tanke for Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East
as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Intervener and Appellant The Episcopal Church.


Page 2 – S155094 - counsel continued

Attorneys for Respondent:

Payne & Fears, Eric C. Sohlgren, Benjamin A. Nix, Daniel F. Lula; Greines, Martin, Stein & Richland and
Robert A. Olson for Defendants and Respondents Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev. Richard A. Menees, Rev. M.
Kathleen Adams, The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California,
James Dale, Barbara Hettinga, Paul Stanley, Cal Trent, John McLaughlin, Penny Reveley, Mike
Thompson, Jill Austin, Eric Evans, Frank Daniels, Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.

Lu T. Nguyen for The Charismatic Episcopal Church as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and
Respondents Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev. Richard A. Menees, Rev. M. Kathleen Adams, The Rector,
Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California, James Dale, Barbara Hettinga,
Paul Stanley, Cal Trent, John McLaughlin, Penny Reveley, Mike Thompson, Jill Austin, Eric Evans, Frank
Daniels, Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.

Law Offices of Lynn E. Moyer, Lynn E. Moyer; Law Office of Kent M. Bridwell and Kent M. Bridwell for
Rev. Jose Poch et al., and Rev. William A. Thompson et al., as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and
Respondents Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev. Richard A. Menees, Rev. M. Kathleen Adams, The Rector,
Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California, James Dale, Barbara Hettinga,
Paul Stanley, Cal Trent, John McLaughlin, Penny Reveley, Mike Thompson, Jill Austin, Eric Evans, Frank
Daniels, Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.

Law Offices of Penner, Bradley & Buettner, Randall M. Penner; Mayer Brown, Donald Falk and Eugene
Volokh for The Presbyterian Lay Committee as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents
Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev. Richard A. Menees, Rev. M. Kathleen Adams, The Rector, Wardens and
Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California, James Dale, Barbara Hettinga, Paul Stanley,
Cal Trent, John McLaughlin, Penny Reveley, Mike Thompson, Jill Austin, Eric Evans, Frank Daniels,
Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.

Kenneth W. Starr; and Robert F. Cochran, Jr., for Iglesia Evangelica Latina, Inc., Juan A. Reyes, Aida
Haydee Reyes, Ahuner Portillo, Audias J. Portillo, Baldemar Contreras, Benjamin Carranza, Camilo
Encina, Christian Sical, Edwin Perez, Edwing Morales, Enrique Luna, Esbin Portillo, Beltran Fermin,
Francisco Fuentes, Carlos G. Garcia, Henry Portillo, Jose Campos, Jose Alfredo Jiminez, Misael Portillo,
Nelson Sosa, Noe Carias, Roberto Estrada, Jonathan Evangelista, Saul Cifuentes, Victor Jacobo, Bildad
Coin, Jose Ruben Reyes, Alex Reyes, Jose Antonio Menjivar, Amado Morroquin, Epifanio Zepeda and
Jose Luz Araujo as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and Respondents Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev.
Richard A. Menees, Rev. M. Kathleen Adams, The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in
Newport Beach, California, James Dale, Barbara Hettinga, Paul Stanley, Cal Trent, John McLaughlin,
Penny Reveley, Mike Thompson, Jill Austin, Eric Evans, Frank Daniels, Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.

Wild, Carter & Tipton and Russell G. Vanrozeboom for The Diocese of San Joaquin as Amicus Curiae on
behalf of Defendants and Respondents Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev. Richard A. Menees, Rev. M. Kathleen
Adams, The Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California, James
Dale, Barbara Hettinga, Paul Stanley, Cal Trent, John McLaughlin, Penny Reveley, Mike Thompson, Jill
Austin, Eric Evans, Frank Daniels, Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.

Allan E. Wilion for Thomas Lee and Rev. Peter Min as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendants and
Respondents Rev. Praveen Bunyan, Rev. Richard A. Menees, Rev. M. Kathleen Adams, The Rector,
Wardens and Vestrymen of St. James Parish in Newport Beach, California, James Dale, Barbara Hettinga,
Paul Stanley, Cal Trent, John McLaughlin, Penny Reveley, Mike Thompson, Jill Austin, Eric Evans, Frank
Daniels, Cobb Grantham and Julia Houten.



Counsel who argued in Supreme Court (not intended for publication with opinion):

John R. Shiner
Holme Roberts & Owen
777 Figueroa Street, Suite 2800
Los Angeles, CA 90017-5826
(213) 572-4300

Heather H. Anderson
Goodwin Procter
901 New York Avenue
Washington, D.C. 20001
(202) 346-4000

Eric C. Sohlgren
Payne & Fears
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA 92614
(949) 851-1100


Petition for review after the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment in a civil action. The case includes the following issues: (1) Should the "principle of government" approach, also known as the "highest church judicatory" approach, be used to resolve disputes between a local congregation and a national church or regional diocese over ownership of church property, or should these disputes be resolved using a "neutral principles analysis"? (2) Was the complaint properly subject to a motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16? (3) What role does Corporations Code section 9142 play in the analysis and resolution of church property disputes?

Opinion Information
Date:Citation:Docket Number:Category:Status:Cross Referenced Cases:
Mon, 01/05/200945 Cal. 4th 467, 198 P.3d 66, 87 Cal. Rptr. 3d 275S155094Review - Civil Appealclosed; remittitur issued

EPISCOPAL CHURCH CASES (S155199)
EPISCOPAL CHURCH CASES (S155208)
EPISCOPAL CHURCH CASES (S155687)
CENTRAL COAST BAPTIST ASSOCIATION v. FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH (S156770)
SYNOD OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA & HAWAII v. KIM (S167078)
NEW v. KROEGER (S168611)


Parties
1Episcopal Church Cases (Overview party)
2Bunyan, Praveen (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

3Bunyan, Praveen (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Daniel Friedman Lula
Payne & Fears
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

4Bunyan, Praveen (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Benjamin Avery Nix
Payne & Fears
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

5Menees, Richard (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

6Adams, Kathleen (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

7Rector Wardens & Vestrymen Of St. James Parish In Newport (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

8Dale, James (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

9Hettinga, Barbara (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

10Stanley, Paul (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

11Trent, Cal (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

12Mclaughlin, John (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

13Reveley, Penny (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

14Thompson, Mike (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

15Austin, Jill (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

16Evans, Eric (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

17Daniels, Frank (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

18Rasmusssen, Jane Hyde (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by John R. Shiner
Holme Roberts & Owen, LLP
800 Olympic Blvd., 4th Fl.
Los Angeles, CA

19Rasmusssen, Jane Hyde (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Frederic D. Cohen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

20Rasmusssen, Jane Hyde (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Jeremy Brooks Rosen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

21Anderson, Robert M. (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by John R. Shiner
Holme Roberts & Owen, LLP
800 West Olympic Blvd., 4th Fl.
Los Angeles, CA

22Anderson, Robert M. (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Frederic D. Cohen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

23Anderson, Robert M. (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Jeremy Brooks Rosen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

24Protestant Episcopal Church In The Diocese Of Los Angele (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by John R. Shiner
Holme Roberts & Owen, LLP
800 West Olympic Blvd., 4th Fl.
Los Angeles, CA

25Protestant Episcopal Church In The Diocese Of Los Angele (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Frederic D. Cohen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

26Protestant Episcopal Church In The Diocese Of Los Angele (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Jeremy Brooks Rosen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

27Episcopal Church In The United States Of America (Plaintiff)
Represented by Joseph E. Thomas
Thomas Whitelaw & Tyler, LLP
18101 Von Karman Avenue, Suite 230
Irvine, CA

28Episcopal Church (Intervener and Appellant)
Represented by David Booth Beers
Goodwin Procter, LLP
901 New York Avenue
Washington, DC

29Episcopal Church (Intervener and Appellant)
Represented by Heather Anderson
Goodwin Procter, LLP
901 New York Avenue
Washington, DC

30Grantham, Cobb (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

31Houten, Julia (Defendant and Respondent)
Represented by Eric Carl Sohlgren
Payne & Fears, LLP
4 Park Plaza, Suite 1100
Irvine, CA

32Bruno, J. Jon (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by John R. Shiner
Holme Roberts & Owen, LLP
800 West Olympic Blvd., 4th Fl.
Los Angeles, CA

33Bruno, J. Jon (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Frederic D. Cohen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

34Bruno, J. Jon (Plaintiff and Appellant)
Represented by Jeremy Brooks Rosen
Horvitz & Levy, LLP
15760 Ventura Boulevard, 18th Floor
Encino, CA

35Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church Of The East (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Tony J. Tanke
Attorney at Law
2050 Lyndell Terrace, Suite 240
Davis, CA

36Kirkpatrick, Clifton (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Christopher J. Cox
Weil Gotshal & Manges, LLP
201 Redwood Shores Parkway
Redwood Shores, CA

37Presbyterian Lay Committee (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Randall Mark Penner
Penner Bradley et al.
1171 W. Shaw Avenue, Suite 102
Fresno, CA

38Presbyterian Lay Committee (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Donald M. Falk
Mayer Brown, LLP
2 Palo Alto Square, Suite 300
3000 El Camino Real
Palo Alto, CA

39Presbyterian Lay Committee (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Eugene Volokh
Mayer Brown, LLP
350 S. Grand Avenue, 25th Floor
Los Angeles, CA

40Iglesia Evangelica Latina (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Kenneth Winston Starr
Attorney at Law
24569 Via de Casa
Malibu, CA

41Poch, Jose (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Lynn Ellen Moyer
Attorney at Law
200 Oceangate, Suite 830
Long Beach, CA

42Poch, Jose (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Kent M. Bridwell
Attorney at Law
3646 Clarington Avenue, Suite 400
Los Angeles, CA

43Charismatic Episcopal Church (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Lu The Nguyen
Attorney at Law
2572 McCloud Way
Roseville, CA

44Presbytery Of Hanmi (Amicus curiae)
Represented by George Stephen Burns
Attorney at Law
4100 MacArthur Boulevard, Suite 305
Newport Beach, CA

45Lee, Thomas (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Allan E. Wilion
Attorney at Law
5900 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 401
Los Angeles, CA

46Min, Peter (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Allan E. Wilion
Attorney at Law
5900 Wilshire Boulevard, Suite 401
Los Angeles, CA

47Diocese Of San Joaquin (Amicus curiae)
Represented by Russell Gene Vanrozeboom
Wild, Carter & Tipton
246 W. Shaw Avenue
Fresno, CA


Opinion Authors
OpinionJustice Ming W. Chin
ConcurJustice Joyce L. Kennard
DissentJustice Joyce L. Kennard

Disposition
Jan 5 2009Opinion: Affirmed

Dockets
Aug 6 2007Petition for review filed
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan et al., Defendants and Respondents by Eric C. Sohlgren, counsel
Aug 21 2007Received Court of Appeal record
  G036408-file jacket/briefs/sealed envelope - G036868-file jacket/briefs/appendices
Aug 24 2007Answer to petition for review filed
  Jane Hyde Rasmussen et al, appellants John R. Shiner, Counsel Frederic D. Cohen, Counsel Jeremey B. Rosen, Counsel
Aug 24 2007Request for judicial notice received (pre-grant)
  Jane Hyde Rasmussen et al, appellants John R. Shiner, Counsel Frederic D. Cohen, Counsel Jeremey B. Rosen, Counsel
Aug 24 2007Answer to petition for review filed
  The Episcopal Church, Interverner and Appellant David B. Beers, Counsel
Aug 27 20072nd record request
  Requested the remainder of the record for all three CA case numbers: G036096, G036868, and G036408 - overnight
Aug 27 2007Received:
  Letter from John R. Shiner counsel for Plaintiffs and Respondents re: advising the Court of a new case cite (opinion attached).
Aug 28 2007Received Court of Appeal record
  G036408 - one full box
Sep 5 2007Reply to answer to petition filed
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan et al., Defendants and Respondents by Eric C. Sohlgren, counsel (CRC 8.25b)
Sep 12 2007Petition for review granted (civil case)
  The request for judical notice is granted. Votes: George, C. J., Kennard, Baxter, Werdegar, Chin, Moreno and Corrigan, JJ.
Sep 26 2007Request for extension of time filed
  to November 13, 2007 to file opening brief Rev. Praveen Bunyan et al., Defendants and Respondents by Eric C. Sohlgren, counsel
Sep 27 2007Certification of interested entities or persons filed
  Jane H. Rasmussen, appallents John R. Shiner, Counsel
Sep 27 2007Certification of interested entities or persons filed
  The Episcopal Church, Interverner and respondent David B. Beers, Counsel
Sep 28 2007Certification of interested entities or persons filed
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan et al., Defendants and Respondents by Eric C. Sohlgren, counsel
Oct 1 2007Extension of time granted
  On application of respondent and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file the opening brief on the merits is extended to and including November 13, 2007.
Nov 14 2007Opening brief on the merits filed
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan et al., Defendants and Respondents by Eric C. Sohlgren, counsel (CRC 8.25b)
Nov 14 2007Request for judicial notice filed (granted case)
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan et al., Defendants and Respondents by Eric C. Sohlgren, counsel
Nov 21 2007Request for extension of time filed
  45 day to Jannuary 28, 2007 extension to file Answer Brief on the mertis. Jane Hyde Rasmussen et al, appellants John R. Shiner, Counsel Frederic D. Cohen, Counsel Jeremey B. Rosen, Counsel
Nov 21 2007Application filed to:
  Opposition to Judicial Notice until the time the answer brief on the merits is filed. Jane Hyde Rasmussen et al, appellants John R. Shiner, Counsel Frederic D. Cohen, Counsel Jeremey B. Rosen, Counsel
Nov 29 2007Extension of time granted
  On application of appellants and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file the answer brief on the merits and the opposition to rejuest for judicial notice is extended to and including January 28, 2008.
Dec 5 2007Application to appear as counsel pro hac vice (granted case)
  for atty Heather H. Anderson, for Intervener The Episcopal Church
Dec 5 2007Request for extension of time filed
  45 days to January 28, 2008, to file Answer Brief on the Merits. The Episcopal Church, Intervener by David Booth Beers, Counsel
Dec 5 2007Request for extension of time filed
  until its Answer Brief on the Merits is filed, to file opposition to petitioner's motion for judicial notice. The Episcopal Church, Intervener by David Booth Beers, Counsel
Dec 14 2007Extension of time granted
  On application of intervener The Episcopal Church and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file the answer brief on the merits and the opposition to the request for judicial notice is extended to and including January 28, 2008.
Dec 14 2007Application to appear as counsel pro hac vice granted
  The application of Heather H. Anderson of the District of Columbia for admission Pro Hac Vice to appear on behalf of intervener The Episcopal Church is granted.
Jan 29 2008Answer brief on the merits filed
  The Episcopal Church, Intervener David B. Beers, Counsel (CRC 8.25b)
Jan 29 2008Opposition filed
  to respondent's request for judicial notice. Jane Hyde Rasmussen et al, appellants John R. Shiner, Counsel Frederic D. Cohen, Counsel Jeremey B. Rosen, Counsel The Episcopal Church, Intervener David B. Beers, Counsel (CRC 8.25b)
Jan 29 2008Answer brief on the merits filed
  Jane Hyde Rasmussen et al, appellants John R. Shiner, Counsel Frederic D. Cohen, Counsel Jeremey B. Rosen, Counsel (CRC 8.25b)
Feb 6 2008Request for extension of time filed
  for defendants and respondents to file the reply brief on the merits, to 4-4-08.
Feb 11 2008Extension of time granted
  On application of defendants and respondents and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file the reply brief on the merits is extended to and including April 4, 2008.
Mar 24 2008Request for extension of time filed
  for defendants and respondents to file the reply brief on the merits, to April 18, 2008.
Apr 3 2008Extension of time granted
  On application of respondents and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file the consolidated reply brief on the merits is extended to and including April 18, 2008.
Apr 21 2008Received:
  (oversized) Reply brief on the merits from respondents (sent by FedX on 4-18-08)
Apr 22 2008Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan, et al., petitioners Eric Sohlgren, Robert Olson, counsel Filed with permission
May 12 2008Request for extension of time filed
  Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, non-party by Tony J. Tanke, Counsel
May 14 2008Extension of time granted
  On application of amicus curiae Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file its amicus curiae brief in support of appellants herein is extended to and including June 18, 2008.
May 19 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  the Charismatic Episcopal Church Lu T. Nguyen, counsel
May 19 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  The Rev. Jose Poch, et al., (St David's Parish, No. Hollywood) and The Rev. William A. Thompson (All Saints Parish, Long Beach) Attorney Kent M. Bridwell [app & brief separate] Supporting respondents
May 20 2008Request for extension of time to file amicus curiae brief
  to June 18, 2008. the Diocese of San Joaquin Russell Vanrozeboom, counsel
May 22 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  the Presbyterian Lay Committee Randall Penner, Donald Falk, Eugene Volokh, counsel brief in support of defendants and respondents
May 22 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  from Thomas Lee and Reverend Peter Min, non-parties, in support of respondents, by Allan E. Wilion, Counsel
May 22 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  Presbytery of Hanmi and Synod of Southern Calif. and Hawaii George S. Burns, counsel brief in support of plaintiffs and appellants
May 23 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  Inglesia Evangelica Latina Inc., et al. Kenneth Starr, Robert Cochran Jr., counsel brief in support of defendants and respondents (sent per CRC 8.25b)
May 23 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  Clifton Kirkpatrick, et al Christopher Cox, counsel brief in support of intervener and appellant (sent per CRC 8.25b)
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of Clifton Kirkpatrick, etc., et al. for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of intervener and appellant is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Clifton Kirkpatrick, etc., et al., in support of intervener and appellant. Christopher Cox, counsel
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of the Charismatic Episcopal Church for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of defendants and respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  the Charismatic Episcopal Church in support of defendants and respondents. Lu T. Nguyen, counsel
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of Rev. Jose Poch, et al. for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of defendants and respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Rev. Jose Poch, et al., in support of defendants and respondents Lynn Moyer, Kent Bridwell, counsel
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of the Presbyterian Lay Committee for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of defendants and respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  the Presbyterian Lay Committee in support of defendants and respondents Randall Penner, Donald Falk, Eugene Volokh, counsel
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of Iglesia Evangelica Latina, Inc., et al. for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of defendants and respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Iglesia Evangelica Latina, Inc., et al., in support of defendants and respondents Kenneth Star, Robert Cochran, Jr., counsel
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of Presbytery of Hanmi and Synod of Southern California and Hawaii for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of plaintiffs and appellants is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Presbytery of Hanmi and Synod of Southern California and Hawaii, in support of plaintiffs and appellants George Burns, counsel
May 30 2008Extension of time granted
  On application of amicus curiae the Diocese of San Joaquin and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file its amicus curiae brief in support of defendants and respondents here is extended to and including June 18, 2008. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of Thomas Lee and Rev. Peter Min for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Thomas Lee and Rev. Peter Min, in support of respondents, by Allan E. Wilion, Counsel **An answer may be served and filed by any party within twenty days.
Jun 12 2008Request for extension of time filed
  Joint request of parties for extension of time, to July 28, 2008, to file responses to all amicus curiae briefs.
Jun 16 2008Received:
  Errata to Amicus brief of Thomas Lee and Rev. Peter Min
Jun 16 2008Extension of time granted
  On joint application of the parties and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file responses all amicus curiae briefs is extended to and including July 28, 2008.
Jun 18 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  Diocese of San Joaquin, in support of defendants and respondents Russell Vanrozeboom, counsel
Jun 19 2008Received application to file Amicus Curiae Brief
  Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in support of appellants Tony Tanke, counsel (timely per CRC 8.25b)
Jun 19 2008Received:
  Request for judicial notice Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church (to be sent to Court with A/C brief for permission to file)
Jun 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of the Diocese of San Joaquin for permission to file an amicus curiae brief in support of defendants and respondents is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
Jun 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Diocese of San Joaquin in suport of defendants and respondents. by counsel, Russell G. Vanrozeboom.
Jun 30 2008Permission to file amicus curiae brief granted
  The application of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East for permission to file an amicus curiae brief and request for judicial notice in support of appellants is hereby granted. An answer thereto may be served and filed by any party within twenty days of the filing of the brief.
Jun 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
  Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in support of appellants. by counsel, Tony J. Tanke.
Jun 30 2008Filed:
  Request for Judicial Notice of amicus curiae Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East in support of appellants. by counsel, Tony J. Tanke.
Jul 11 2008Request for extension of time filed
  to file responses to amicus curiae briefs, to 8/5/08. Joint request of all parties
Jul 17 2008Extension of time granted
  On application of the parties and good cause appearing, it is ordered that the time to serve and file the responses to the amicus curiae briefs is extended to and including August 5, 2008.
Aug 5 2008Response to amicus curiae brief filed
  Combined response to amicus curiae briefs Jane Rasmussen, et al., respondents John Shiner, Frederick Cohen, counsel
Aug 6 2008Response to amicus curiae brief filed
  Combined response to amicus curiae briefs the Episcopal Church, intervenor and appellant David Beers, counsel timely per CRC 8.25b
Aug 6 2008Response to amicus curiae brief filed
  Combined response to amicus curiae briefs Rev. Praveen Bunyan, et al., defendants and respondents Eric Sohlgren, Robert Olson, counsel timely per CRC 8.25b
Aug 20 2008Case ordered on calendar
  to be argued Wednesday, October 8, 2008, at 9:00 a.m., in Riverside County
Sep 2 2008Request for Extended Media coverage Filed
  The California Channel by James Gualtieri
Sep 2 2008Application filed
  Application to divide oral argument time, filed by John R. Shiner, counsel for respondents Rasmussen et al., asking to share 15 minues with respondent Episcopal Church.
Sep 2 2008Filed:
  Joinder to application to divide oral argument time, filed by David Booth Beers, counsel for respondent Episcopal Church.
Sep 4 2008Order filed
  The request of counsel for appellants in the above-referenced cause to allow two counsel to argue on behalf of appellants at oral argument is hereby granted. Appellants' request to allocate to the Los Angeles Diocese parties (Rasmussen et al.) 15 minutes and the Episcopal Church 15 minutes of appellants' 30-minute allotted time for argument is granted.
Sep 5 2008Request for Extended Media coverage Granted
  The request for media coverage, filed by the California Channel on September 2, 2008, is granted, subject to the conditions set forth in rule 1.150, of the California Rules of Court.
Sep 11 2008Request for judicial notice granted
  Respondents' request for judicial notice, filed on November 14, 2007, is granted. Amicus curiae the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East's request for judicial notice, filed on June 30, 2008, is granted to the extent it asks us to notice the documents attached as exhibit A to that request, but is otherwise denied.
Oct 1 2008Request for Extended Media coverage Filed
  The Desert Sun Mike Snyder, photographer
Oct 1 2008Request for Extended Media coverage Filed
  Calif. State University, San Bernardino-Palm Desert Campus Mike Singer, photographer
Oct 3 2008Request for Extended Media coverage Granted
  The request for extended media coverage of the Supreme Court's Oral Argument Special Session on October 7 and 8 , 2008, filed on October 1, 2008, by the Desert Sun to serve as pool photographer is granted , subject to the conditions set forth in rule 1.150, California Rules of court.
Oct 3 2008Request for Extended Media coverage Granted
  The request for extended media coverage of the Supreme Court's Oral Argument Speical Session on October 7 and 8, 2008, filed by the California State University, San Bernardino-Palm Desert Campus photographer on September 26, 2008, is granted, subject to the conditions set forth in rule 1.150, California Rules of Court.
Oct 8 2008Cause argued and submitted
 
Oct 31 2008Received:
  Letter from plaintiffs and appellants citing additional opinions
Nov 10 2008Received:
  Letter from defendants and respondents in response to appellants' letter received 10/31
Dec 3 2008Change of contact information filed for:
  address of Holme Roberts & Owen, counsel for appellants Rasmussen, et al.
Jan 2 2009Notice of forthcoming opinion posted
 
Jan 5 2009Opinion filed: Judgment affirmed in full
  Majority Opinion by Chin, J. ----- Joined by George, C. J., Baxter, Werdegar, Moreno and Corrigan, JJ. Concurring and Dissenting Opinion by Kennard, J.
Jan 21 2009Rehearing petition filed
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan, et al respondents Eric Sohlgren, Robert Olson, counsel (timely per CRC 8.25b)
Jan 29 2009Answer to rehearing petition filed
  Jane Hyde Rasmussen, et al., respondents John Shiner, Jeremy Rosen, counsel
Jan 29 2009Answer to rehearing petition filed
  the Episcopal Church, plaintiff in intervention David Beers, counsel
Jan 29 2009Request for judicial notice filed (granted case)
  Joint request of respondents and plaintiff in intervention
Feb 3 2009Received:
  Application for Leave to file Reply in support of Petition for Rehearing submitted concurrent with Reply in Support of Rehearing [both app./brief scanned to sf] The Rev. Praveen Bunyan, et al., Attorney Eric C. Sohlgren
Feb 3 2009Reply to answer to petition filed
  Rev. Praveen Bunyan, et al., respondents Robert Olson, Eric Sohlgren, counsel *Filed with permission
Feb 4 2009Time extended to consider modification or rehearing
  The time for granting or denying rehearing in the above-entitled case is hereby extended to and including April 3, 2009, or the date upon which rehearing is either granted or denied, whichever occurs first.
Feb 25 2009Rehearing denied
  The request for judicial notice, filed January 29, 2009 is granted. The opinion is modified. The petition for rehearing is denied.
Feb 25 2009Opinion modified - no change in judgment
  MODIFICATION OF OPINION THE COURT: The opinion herein, filed on January 5, 2009, and appearing at 45 Cal.4th 467, is modified as follows: The first sentence in the second full paragraph on page 473 is modified to read: "Applying the neutral principles of law approach, we conclude, on this record, that the general church, not the local church, owns the property in question." The third full paragraph on page 476 is modified to read: "We granted review to decide whether this action is subject to the special motion to strike under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 and to address the merits of the church property dispute." The first full paragraph on page 478, under "B.," is modified to read: "Both lower courts also addressed the merits of the dispute over ownership of the local church - the trial court found in favor of the local church and the Court of Appeal found clear and convincing evidence in favor of the general church. We will also address this question, which the parties as well as various amici curiae have fully briefed. We will first consider what method the secular courts of this state should use to resolve disputes over church property. We will then apply that method to analyze the dispute of this case." The first sentence of the first full paragraph on page 493 is modified to read: "For these reasons, we agree with the Court of Appeal's conclusion (although not with all of its reasoning) that, on this record, when defendants disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church, the local church property reverted to the general church." This modification does not affect the judgment.
Feb 25 2009Remittitur issued (civil case)
 
Jun 30 2009Received:
  Notice from U.S. Supreme Court that petition for writ of certiorari No. 08-1579 has been filed and placed on docket.
Oct 5 2009Certiorari denied by U.S. Supreme Court
 

Briefs
Nov 14 2007Opening brief on the merits filed
 
Jan 29 2008Answer brief on the merits filed
 
Jan 29 2008Answer brief on the merits filed
 
Apr 22 2008Reply brief filed (case fully briefed)
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
May 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
Jun 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
Jun 30 2008Amicus curiae brief filed
 
Aug 5 2008Response to amicus curiae brief filed
 
Aug 6 2008Response to amicus curiae brief filed
 
Aug 6 2008Response to amicus curiae brief filed
 
Brief Downloads
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Petitioners' Opening Brief on the Merits.pdf (3224706 bytes)
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Answer Brief on the Merits.pdf.PDF (2025426 bytes)
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The Episcopal Church's Answer Brief on the Merits.pdf (3523156 bytes)
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Petitioners' Consolidated Reply Brief.pdf (2580665 bytes)
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The Episcopal Church's Response to Amici Curiae.pdf (4355239 bytes)
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Respondents' Consolidated Answer to Amici Curiae.pdf (2076527 bytes)
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Petitioners' Consolidated Response to Amici Curiae.pdf (2762166 bytes)
application/pdf icon
Amicus Curiae Brief of the HACACE.pdf (3317852 bytes) - Amicus Curiae Brief of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East
If you'd like to submit a brief document to be included for this opinion, please submit an e-mail to the SCOCAL website
May 24, 2011
Annotated by justin goodwin

PARTIES:

The plaintiffs include the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (“national Episcopal Church”), the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles (“Los Angeles Diocese”), and several individual members of the Los Angeles Diocese.

The defendants are various individuals connected with the St. James Parish, a church located in Newport Beach, California, which had disaffiliated itself from the national Episcopal Church prior to the lawsuit.

FACTS:

In this case, the St. James Parish has disaffiliated itself from the national Episcopal Church. Both the local parish and the national church now claim ownership of the local church building and the property on which it rests. The parties have asked the courts to resolve the dispute.

The St. James Parish, originally a mission of the Episcopal Church, obtained parish status in 1949. Members of the Parish promised in both their application and their articles of incorporation to be part of the national Episcopal Church and to be bound by its governing documents, including its Constitution and Canons. In 1950, the Bishop of the Los Angeles Diocese deeded the local church property to the St. James Parish, and the deeds to the property have been in the name of the Parish ever since. In 1979, the Episcopal Church added section 4 to its Canon I.7. Section 4 clearly states that all church property is held in trust for the national church and may be controlled by a local parish only so long as the parish remains a part of the national church.

Following a doctrinal dispute that arose after the national Episcopal Church ordained an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003, the St. James Parish recently disaffiliated itself from the Episcopal Church. After the disaffiliation, a further dispute arose between the St. James Parish and the national Episcopal Church, as both organizations claimed ownership of the church building that the St. James Parish used for worship and the property on which the building stands.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY:

The Los Angeles Diocese and several of its individual members sued individual members of the St. James Parish seeking to recover the disputed property. The national Episcopal Church later successfully intervened on the side of the Los Angeles Diocese, filing its own complaint in intervention. The defendants moved to strike the action as a strategic lawsuit against public participation, or SLAPP suit, under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16. The trial court granted the defendants’ motion and dismissed the suit without leave to amend. The court found both that the action was a SLAPP suit and that the plaintiffs had not established a probability that they would prevail on the merits. The trial court later sustained the defendants’ demurrer to the national Episcopal Church’s complaint in intervention and dismissed that action.

Both the Los Angeles Diocese and the Episcopal Church appealed the dismissals. After consolidating the two appeals, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment, holding that the action was not a SLAPP suit and the national Episcopal Church owned the disputed property. The Supreme Court of California granted review to decide whether the action is a SLAPP suit subject to Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 and to resolve the church property dispute on the merits.

ISSUES:

(1) Is the action subject to a special motion to dismiss, or anti-SLAPP motion, under Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16?

(2) Should internal church property disputes be resolved using the "principle of government" approach, or should they be resolved using the "neutral principles of law” approach?

(3) Did ownership of the local church property revert to the national Episcopal Church when the St. James Parish disaffiliated?

HOLDINGS:

(1) No, the action is not subject to an anti-SLAPP motion because it did not arise from protected activity within the meaning of Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16.

(2) Courts should resolve internal church property disputes using the "neutral principles of law” approach.

(3) Yes, the property in question reverted to the national Episcopal Church when the St. James Parish disaffiliated from it.

ANALYSIS:

(1) A court may grant a defendant’s anti-SLAPP motion only if two conditions are met: First, the defendant must make a threshold showing that the challenged cause of action arose from protected activity. Second, the plaintiff must not be able to demonstrate a probability of prevailing on the claims. Code of Civil Procedure section 425.16 defines protected activity as an act “in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States or California Constitution in connection with a public issue.”

The court concluded that the action did not arise from protected activity within the meaning of section 425.16. Although the defendants’ disagreement with the national Episcopal Church over church governance—the motivation underlying the defendants’ decision to disaffiliate—may be protected activity under the anti-SLAPP statute, the action did not arise out of that activity. The plaintiffs sued members of the St. Francis Parish for asserting control over the local parish property to the exclusion of the plaintiffs’ right to control. The cause of action is based on this property dispute, not on the defendants’ protected free speech activity.

(2) The court held that California courts should use neutral principals of law to decide church property disputes. The court recognized that it had previously applied the “principle of government” approach, which focused on church structure and governance and treated decisions made by a national church as binding on local congregations. The court reasoned, however, that because the “neutral principals of law” analysis also does not involve the resolution of doctrinal disputes, the court unquestionably has the authority to adopt that approach.

Under the neutral principles approach, courts must not decide questions of religious doctrine, which are to be left to the churches to resolve. When a court can resolve a church property dispute without reference to church doctrine, it should apply neutral principles of law, considering sources such as the deeds to the disputed property, the local church’s articles of incorporation, the general churches governing documents, and relevant statutes.

(3) The court also held that the St. James Parish church’s disaffiliation with the national Episcopal Church caused the disputed parish property to revert to the national church. Although the St. James Parish held record title to the property in question, the parish had promised in its original application and its articles of incorporation to be bound by the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church. Canon I.7.4, which the Episcopal Church adopted in 1979, provides in part that property held by a local parish is held in trust for the national church and the local diocese. The canon also provides that a local parish may retain authority over such property only so long as the parish remains part of the national Episcopal Church. Moreover, Canon I.7.4 is consistent with earlier canons that impose significant limitations on a local parish’s use of church property and give the national church substantial power over such property.

Additionally, Corporations Code section 9142 also supports the court’s conclusion that the disputed property now belongs to the national church. Subdivision (c) of section 9142 permits the governing documents of a general church to create an express trust in church property, which is precisely what the national Episcopal Church did when it adopted Canon I.7.4. In order to respect the First Amendment free exercise rights of individuals to enter into a religious association such as the Episcopal Church, the court was compelled to give effect to the to provisions and agreements creating such an association.

RULING:

The court affirmed the judgment of the Court of Appeal.

CONCURRING AND DISSENTING OPINION:

After the St. James Parish disaffiliated with the Episcopal Church, the ownership of the disputed property reverted to the national church. This conclusion is compelled by Corporations Code section 9142. The conclusion is not, however, based on a “neutral principles of law” analysis. No existing principle of trust law would allow the unilateral creation of a trust by the decree of a non-owner of property that the owner of the property is holding it in trust for the non-owner. Instead, Corporations Code section 9142 reflects the “principle of government” approach, under which a court must accept decisions made at the highest level of a church’s hierarchy, even when those decisions conflict with the interests of a local congregation.

KEY RELATED CASES:

Jones v. Wolf, 443 U.S. 595 (1979)

Presbyterian Church v. Hull Church, 393 U.S. 440 (1969)

Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S. 679 (1871)

Presbytery of Riverside v. Community Church of Palm Springs, 152 Cal. Rptr. 854 (Cal. Ct. App. 1979)

TAGS:

Episcopal Church, St. James Parish, church property, disaffiliation, anti-SLAPP motion, principles of government, neutral principles of law

Annotation by Justin T. Goodwin