Latest court ruling favors St. John's Anglican Parish in dispute with U.S. Episcopal Church

Posted: Jul. 25, 2014 6:58 pm Updated: Aug. 8, 2014 8:15 pm

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

St. John's Anglican Parish of Quincy learned Friday it has won another legal battle to retain its properties and assets as part of an ongoing legal dispute with the Episcopal Church of the United States.

The Illinois Fourth District Court of Appeals in Springfield ruled against the U.S. Episcopal Church, which had claimed ownership of St. John's properties and assets after a 2008 vote by the Diocese of Quincy to leave the U.S. Episcopal Church but remain in the Anglican Communion.

St. John's, 701 Hampshire, is part of the Quincy Diocese, which is headquartered in Peoria and comprised of 31 congregations in Illinois and six other states. The diocese is considered a constituent member of the Anglican Church in North America.

St. John's notification of the appellate court's decision followed an appeal by the U.S. Episcopal Church, stemming from a September 2013 decision in Adams County Circuit Court. The local court decision indicated there was no "explicit provision" in the U.S. Episcopal Church's constitution or canons specifying that it has supremacy or ultimate authority over a diocese, or that a diocese is prohibited from withdrawal.

Tad Brenner, legal counsel for St. John's, told The Herald-Whig that the Episcopal Church's track record indicates it would likely attempt to appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court -- which is not required to hear such an appeal.

"That would be discretionary (on the part of the Illinois Supreme Court)," Brenner said.

Brenner indicated any decision from the Illinois Supreme Court would likely come in "relatively quick" fashion, probably within a month.

Brenner said the U.S. Episcopal Church of the United States is currently involved in three cases similar to Quincy. Others are in Texas, South Carolina and California.

What initially triggered the legal confrontation was when the Diocese of Quincy joined about 8,000 U.S. congregations in deciding to leave the church in a dispute over the U.S. Episcopal Church's liberal stand on homosexuality. Leadership in the Diocese of Quincy has traditionally stood on the conservative side of social issues.

The dispute, which has been ongoing for more than 35 years, worsened 11 years ago because of a larger clash about biblical interpretations. Tensions heightened in 2003, when the U.S. Episcopal Church consecrated an openly gay man, V. Gene Robinson, as bishop of New Hampshire.

The court rulings of 2013 and Friday have no connection with theology or ethics. They are dealing with brick and mortar issues and which entity is entitled to St. John's property and other assets.

"We are thrilled with this ruling," said the Rev. Patrick Smith, who has pastored St. John's since October 2010. "We are hoping we are near the end (of this process) and anticipate any possible further rulings will also be in our favor. The decision confirms our victory last year in the trial court."

Smith said he preferred not to comment on whether he thought the U.S. Episcopal Church would continue the litigation or accept this latest ruling as the end.

The Diocese of Quincy is led by the Right Reverend J. Alberto Morales of Peoria.

"We have left God in charge of our defense in the litigation brought against us -- we have simply prayed, carried out the work of the kingdom and tried to be faithful to our calling," Morlaes said Friday in a release. "We are so grateful for God's protection, for the work of the judges in ruling in our favor and for the tireless work of our gifted legal team."

It has been a tumultuous past 12 years for St. John's. Prior to breaking away from the U.S. Episcopal Church, St. John's was gutted by an August 2002 fire. A seven-year rebuilding project that cost $4.5 million was finally completed in 2009. At the time of the fire, St. John's was on the list of the National Register of Historic Places.

St. John's dates to 1837 and has been at its current site since the early 1850s.