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In re Episcopal Church Cases

January 5, 2009; as modified February 25, 2009

EPISCOPAL CHURCH CASES.


Ct.App. 4/3 G036096, G036408 & G036868 Orange County JCCP No. 4392. Judge: David C. Velasquez.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Chin, J.

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" 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, on this record, 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."*fn1 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.

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 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.

"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 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 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.

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]section 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.

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 ...


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