Episcopal diocese wins a legal round
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The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh has won round two in a fight with the rival Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh over $20 million in assets.
An appeals court Wednesday upheld a decision that took the money from the Anglican diocese, led by Archbishop Robert Duncan. The two split in 2008 over theological issues.
The ruling covers assets held by the central diocese. Parish property is to be negotiated.
Episcopal Bishop Kenneth Price Jr. welcomed the decision, which arrived the day his diocese reached the first settlement with an Anglican parish. It required that parish to cut ties with the Anglican diocese for five years.
"We are pleased with the court's findings and hope this will be the final legal challenge concerning this issue," he said.
He invited Anglican congregations "to join us in negotiating a settlement to our differences."
Archbishop Duncan, who is also primate of the theologically conservative Anglican Church in North America, hasn't decided whether to appeal.
"The decision of the appellate court is deeply disappointing," he said. "In the next hours and days the bishop and standing committee will pray and take counsel about our corporate path forward."
In response to a court order, the Anglican diocese turned over the assets last year. The Episcopal diocese has sent Anglican parishes income from their endowments. But while the case remains active, potential exists to reverse ownership.
The case began in 2003, when it appeared that then-Bishop Duncan was preparing to lead the Episcopal diocese out of the Episcopal Church over theological issues. One of the more liberal parishes filed suit to prevent departing parishes or leaders from taking property away from the Episcopal Church. In 2005 both sides agreed that, if there was a split, diocesan property would remain with "the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America" and parish property would be negotiated.
After the 2008 diocesan convention voted 240-102 to leave the Episcopal Church, the Anglican diocese argued that it was still "the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America" because that was the entity that voted to secede. In 2009 Allegheny Common Pleas Judge Joseph James found the wording of the 2005 agreement -- "the stipulation" -- was "clear and unambiguous." He awarded the property to the Episcopalians.
The Anglicans appealed on four grounds, and the Commonwealth Court rejected them all.
On the issue of whether the Anglican diocese is "The Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America," Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer wrote, "the stipulation's meaning is clear, and we do not believe the stipulation is reasonably susceptible to the interpretation proffered by the Anglican diocese."
Both sides had awaited a resolution of these issues before tackling the parish negotiations. Nevertheless, on Tuesday, St. Philip's in Moon, which was part of the Anglican diocese, reached a settlement with the Episcopal diocese. It will keep its property in return for an undisclosed financial settlement and an agreement to sever ties with the Anglican diocese and the Anglican Church in North America for at least five years. That will make St. Philip's independent.
Archbishop Duncan has argued that the settlement, which must be approved by Judge James, violates First Amendment religious freedom. He made a public request for the court to strike the disassociation clause.
The Rev. Eric Taylor, pastor of St. Philip's, supported the settlement, saying the parish needed its building, which was designed for outreach to youth.
"I'm happy for the opportunity to negotiate an agreement, given the current climate," he said.
Rich Creehan, communications director for the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, said that future settlements with other parishes would not necessarily require separation
"In this case, the rector's position was that [denominational] affiliation was not important for him to go forward with his mission," he said. "It made the agreement a better deal for us."
Even before the 2008 split, St. Philip's website cited no denominational affiliation.
The Anglican diocese voted to release St. Philip's, invoking its promise that member congregations are free to leave and take their property with them.
"But it's with a heavy heart," said the Rev. Mary Hays, canon to the ordinary of the Anglican diocese, who attended St. Philip's congregational meeting Tuesday.
Regarding the Episcopal diocese's claim that other parishes would not be forced to separate, she said, "I hope and trust that would be true, that other negotiations would not involve disassociation. But I'd be surprised if it were true."
First Published February 3, 2011 12:00 am