FIVE congregations of the diocese of Forth Worth in the Episcopal Church of the United States face eviction from the churches in which they worship after the US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal in a 12-year legal battle.
The court on Monday declined to hear an appeal from the diocese against a ruing by a state court, which had allowed property worth $100 million to remain in the hands of the Episcopal diocese of Fort Worth. This diocese has the same name, but is now part of the conservative Anglican Church in North America.
Under the leadership of the former Bishop of Fort Worth, the Rt Revd Jack Iker, it broke away from the Episcopal Church in disagreement over issues including the consecration in 2003 of the gay bishop Gene Robinson; Bishop Iker took 15,000 congregation members with him from 48 churches.
Eight churches remained affiliated to the Episcopal Church, and the number in this diocese has now grown to 14. Five of these congregations remain in churches from which they could now be evicted.
The Episcopal Church’s Provisional Bishop of Fort Worth, the Rt Revd J. Scott Mayer, said that he was disappointed by the decision, “but as followers of Jesus Christ we live in hope.”
He encouraged people to focus on the “important goal of continuing our worship of God and our ministries in this diocese of the Church in as uninterrupted a manner as possible”.
He continued: “When we began this litigation in 2009, we did so as heir and steward of the legacy of faithful Episcopalians. In the wake of this decision, we remain committed to preaching the gospel as we celebrate the sacraments, care for those in need, and strive for justice and peace.”
The US Episcopal Presiding Bishop, the Most Revd Michael Curry, who has supported Bishop Mayer and his diocese, sent a message saying: “We stand with you in sorrow and disappointment.”
The Bishop of Fort Worth (ACNA), the Rt Revd Ryan Reed, said that the decision “marks a turning point for us as a diocese”, and was received with “great joy and thanksgiving to God”.
The Supreme Court’s refusal appears to end the long dispute that began in 2009 when the conservative diocese was sued by the Episcopal Church’s diocese over its claim to church property. Different courts have ruled in favour of one side, only for the judgment to be overthrown in another court. By upholding the 2020 decision, the Supreme Court has effectively ended the Episcopal Church’s hold on the property.
There is a still a dispute over names. The case will now go back to the trial-court judge, who will determine how the 2020 order should be carried out.