Payne & Fears LLP filed on behalf of its client St. James Church a “friend of the court” amici curiae brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to encourage it to hear a case that could resolve the uncertain and inconsistent rulings of state supreme courts about church property disputes.
The brief supports a petition of certiorari brought by the rector, officers and vestry members of Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, Connecticut in the case of Gauss v. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. Bishop Seabury Church ended its affiliation with the Episcopal Church in 2007 and was then sued for its property. Even though Bishop Seabury Church had sole title, possession and control of its property for over 50 years, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled against them, finding that the Episcopal Church’s “Dennis Canon” created an express trust over its property.
The brief asks the U.S. Supreme Court to take up this case and rule that any state law or court decision which gives preference to certain denominations to self-create a trust in property they do not own violates the U.S. Constitution. If the Court grants review of this case, it will be the first church property case taken up in 33 years and churches across the nation could have a definitive ruling on whether denominational trust rules are enforceable against local churches.
Given the importance of the issue, 15 churches from throughout the United States joined the brief to show their support. These churches represent a broad coalition of current and former Episcopal and Presbyterian churches, churches that have lost their property in litigation, churches that walked away from their property to avoid litigation, and churches that are concerned about the ability to raise funds and construct new buildings when the law is uncertain. The American Anglican Council, the Presbyterian Lay Committee and CapinCrouse LLP –which represent the interests of hundreds of churches, synods and dioceses across the nation – also joined the brief.
Partners Eric C. Sohlgren and Daniel F. Lula of the Religious Organizations practice group prepared and filed the amici curiae brief, which can be found here.