California's high court ruled Monday that three parishes that left the U.S. Episcopal Church over its ordination of gay ministers cannot retain ownership of their church buildings and property.
In an unanimous decision, the California Supreme Court ruled that the Southern California property belongs to the Episcopal Church because the parishes agreed to abide by the mother church's rules, which include specific language about property ownership.
St. James Church in Newport Beach, All Saints Church in Long Beach and St. David's Church in North Hollywood pulled out of the 2.1 million-member national Episcopal Church in 2004 and sought to retain property ownership.
Each church held deeds in their names to the property. The court ruled that Episcopal Church canons made it clear the property belonged to the individual parishes only as long as they remained part of the bigger church.
"When it disaffiliated from the general church, the local church did not have the right to take the church property with it," Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin wrote for the seven-member court.
The 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire set off a wide-ranging debate within the church and upset conservative congregations. Since then, four dioceses and about 100 individual churches have split and set off bitter religious and legal feuds over church doctrine and division of property.
An attorney for the U.S. Episcopal Church said that the California Supreme Court ruling will be influential in other similar property disputes across the country.
"This was a thorough and conclusive ruling," said Episcopal Church lawyer John Shiner.
Bishop John Bruno, head of the 85,000-person Los Angeles Diocese, said he was "overjoyed" with the ruling and hoped it would prompt reconciliation talks with the three churches.
"I'm a Christian and I believe there is always the possibility of reconciliation," Bruno said. "It has been devastating for both sides."
A lawyer for the breakaway parishes didn't immediately return a telephone call.
Similar legal battles are expected in Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Texas, and Quincy, Illinois, where dioceses recently voted to split from the national church.
On Dec. 19, 2008, a Virginia judge citing a Civil War-era state law there ruled in favor of 11 congregations in their split from the main church.
The Episcopal Church, with about 2.1 million members in the U.S., is the American body of the Anglican Communion, with about 77 million members worldwide.