Georgia Supreme Court upholds property ruling

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Nov 21, 2011

[Episcopal News Service] The Georgia Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court ruling that the real property and other assets of Christ Church Episcopal in Savannah are held in trust for the Diocese of Georgia and the Episcopal Church.

The text of the 6-1 opinion, as well as the dissenting opinion, is here.

The court’s opinion, issued Nov. 21, said that two lower courts properly applied the “neutral principals of law” approach, previously adopted by that court and approved by the U.S. Supreme Court as a constitutional method for resolving church property disputes.

The “neutral principles” approach requires courts to resolve church property disputes by examining deeds, state statutes, and the governing documents of the local and general church in order to discern whether local church property is held subject to any obligations to the larger church.

Supreme Court Justice David E. Nahmias, writing for the majority, said that “the record shows that at all times during the 180 years before this dispute began, Christ Church acted consistently with the Episcopal Church’s canons regarding its property, demonstrating the local church’s understanding that it could not consecrate, alienate, or encumber – much less leave with – its property without the consent of the parent church.”

The opinion also said “the First Amendment allows Christ Church and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans, but it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.”

Georgia Bishop Scott Behase said in a statement that “while we are grateful that a third court has upheld our legal rights to the property held in trust for the Episcopal Church for more than 200 years, whatever satisfaction we feel in prevailing in the courts is muted by the knowledge that this decision is painful for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ,” referring to the congregation that disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church while continuing to occupy church property.

“As Christians we know that even those with whom we disagree are also seeking to follow Jesus faithfully,” he added. “While we were forced to take action when the breakaway congregation deprived the thriving congregation of Christ Church Episcopal of the property we hold in trust for them on Johnson Square, we know that both groups share faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world.”

The Rev. Michael S. White, Christ Church rector, said in a statement that he was thankful that the dispute is over but, “we remain saddened that our brothers and sisters decided to leave the Episcopal Church. Our church is diminished by their absence and by the loss of their voice in our midst.”

White added that “we will return to our church home on Johnson Square and maintain our abiding commitment to Christian grace, joy, humility and forgiveness.”

White and the continuing congregation have been worshipping on Sunday evenings since October 2007 at St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church in Savannah. That gathering will continue “until further notice as we conclude certain administrative matters associated with our transitioning back to our historic home,” he said.

When they return, White said, it will be as “a changed people.”

“During this time in exile, we have formed as a community of faith and a Church centered in worship and service to God and God’s world,” he said. “Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, we have also experienced the truth that we are called to be faithful stewards of his word and sacraments wherever we may meet.”

The Anglican Church of the Province of Uganda-affiliated congregation said in a statement on its website that it was reviewing the ruling and that the leaders of the parish “will meet to determine our next course of action which could include an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if warranted.”

The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Georgia and Christ Church Episcopal originally filed a lawsuit after some clergy and members of the parish voted to align with the Province of Uganda in September 2007 but refused to vacate the building and relinquish control over other church assets.

In July 2010, the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld an Oct. 27, 2009, ruling by Chatham County Court Judge Michael Karpf, which said that “a trust over the property exists in favor of the national church and the Diocese of Georgia. Accordingly, the court finds that the church property reverts to the control of the bishop of the Diocese of Georgia for the uses and purposes of the Episcopal Church and that plaintiffs are entitled to immediate possession.”

Until the congregation split, Christ Church had abided by the requirements of the Episcopal Church’s property canons, including after the General Convention in 1979 passed the “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4), which states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church, the appeals court said.

The breakaway congregation now has until Dec. 1 to file a motion for reconsideration.

Amicus briefs were filed in the case by the American Anglican Council, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the Church of God, the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, the Presbyterian Lay Committee and the South Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The dispute began in March 2006 when the church’s former rector and members of the vestry changed the parish’s articles of incorporation to disavow its affiliation with the Episcopal Church. In November 2007, the diocese filed a petition in Chatham Superior Court to regain the parish’s real and personal property after the vestry voted unanimously to place the congregation under the care of John Guernsey, a former Episcopal priest who had been consecrated as a Province of Uganda bishop.

Established in 1733 by General James Oglethorpe, founder of the Georgia colony, Christ Church is known as the “Mother Church of Georgia.” The church has been the home for many of Savannah’s most prominent citizens, according to a statement on its website, including Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low and Academy-award winner Johnny Mercer. It counts among its former rectors John Wesley and George Whitfield, and in more recent times, Bland Tucker.

The Episcopal Diocese of Georgia covers the southern two thirds of the state of Georgia, including Savannah, Augusta, Albany, Thomasville, Valdosta and Brunswick.

—The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for Episcopal News Service.