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posted Friday, December 28, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 52

Churches at odds in Texas
State's highest court to decide between pro- and anti-Gay Anglican factions

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

The Texas Supreme Court will decide who owns 52 Fort Worth-area Episcopal Church properties valued at more than $100 million.

Bishop Jack Iker of Fort Worth, a theological conservative, split from the national Episcopal Church in 2008 to protest the consecration of openly Gay bishop Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, the ordination of women clergy, and other policies of the increasingly liberal denomination.

In 2009, Iker joined the Anglican Church in North America, which is aligned with ultraconservative churches in Nigeria, Uganda, and Sudan in opposition to the Church of England, the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., and other mainstream Anglican churches.

REAL ESTATE GRAB?
Iker's breakaway diocese claimed it owned the church properties in his district, but in 2009 the national church sued him to block his efforts to take possession of them.

At stake was ownership of the 48 churches that joined Iker as well as eight that remained loyal to the national church. A few of the individual disputes have been settled, but most still await the Texas Supreme Court's disposition.

A state district judge sided with the national church, giving Iker 30 days to surrender the properties. Iker then appealed to the state Supreme Court, and the district court decision was stayed pending the decision of the higher court. The Texas Supreme Court is not under a deadline to issue its ruling.

The case is said by lawyers to be one of the largest church property disputes in state and U.S. history.

'It's not the amount of money that makes the case important,' Iker's attorney, Scott Brister, told the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

DUELING LEGAL STANDARDS
Attorneys say church property disputes require courts to balance the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion and state laws on property rights and nonprofits. The Texas Supreme Court's decision could determine how the state handles similar cases in the future.

The breakaway faction claims the court needs to view the properties under a 'neutral principles' standard created by the U.S. Supreme Court. That standard determines ownership by looking at property records and has been used in most states to resolve church disputes.

The national Episcopal Church, though, argues the court should resolve the dispute based on the 'deference' standard, also developed by the U.S. Supreme Court. This requires courts to 'defer' to the church hierarchy and allow it to select its own officials. The national Episcopal Church argues, based on this principle, that Iker is not an official church leader and has no right to church property.



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