St Mary of the Angels parish in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California broke away from the Episcopal Church and, after various vicissitudes, became affiliated to the Anglican Church in America (the ACA, one of several North American “not-in-communion” Churches in the Anglican tradition). A majority of its members wanted the parish to pursue reunification with the Roman Catholic Church while others wanted to remain with the ACA. At one point during the dispute the ACA inhibited the rector, Father Kelley, from performing any ecclesiastical duties, ordered him to vacate the premises owned by St Mary’s and appointed a new rector. The new rector then removed several members of the elected Vestry and appointed new members in their place.
The series of events is extremely complex; but the nub of the dispute was which of the two competing parties was entitled to be in control of the parish and its property. At first instance the ACA-related parties had argued that the answer to that question required resolution of ecclesiastical matters that were the preserve of the authoritative ecclesiastical body of the Church. The trial court had agreed, had dismissed the actions brought by the elected Vestry and had granted summary judgment to the appointed Vestry in its action against Father Kelley and his family.
Before the California State Court of Appeal in Rector, Wardens and Vestrymen of St Mary of the Angels’ Parish v Anglican Church in America (CA App., July 23, 2014), the elected Vestry contended that the key issue did not, in fact, involve any non-justiciable questions of religious doctrine. The Court of Appeal looked at the case-law and concluded that
“… while courts must avoid deciding questions of religious doctrine when presented with disputes between a local church and a national church, courts have a duty to examine the governing documents of the local and national churches to determine whether the dispute at issue may be resolved without reference to religious doctrine, and can instead be resolved by application of neutral principles of law”.
In the circumstances of the case, therefore, it concluded that the trial court had been wrong to concluded that the points at issue
“… were ecclesiastical matters, the determination of which rests exclusively with the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of the ACA … [M]ost of the determinations the trial court found were required are not, in fact, necessary to determine who controls St Mary’s, and the matters that must be resolved can be determined through the application of neutral principles of law”.
In short, while the Court was not prepared to look at matters of doctrine, in this case that was not necessary. The determinative issue was the validity or otherwise of the amendment made to the articles of incorporation and bylaws. The Court therefore reversed the judgments of the trial court and remanded the case for further proceedings to allow the parties to present evidence on, and for the Court to determine, the validity of the August 2012 vote to amend St Mary’s articles of incorporation and bylaws.
We don’t normally cover US cases; but anyone who has got this far has probably been reminded of Shergill & Ors v Khaira & Ors  UKSC 33, on which we posted at the time. The Supreme Court noted that
“… where a claimant asks the court to enforce private rights and obligations which depend on religious issues, the judge may have to determine such religious issues as are capable of objective ascertainment. The court addresses questions of religious belief and practice where its jurisdiction is invoked either to enforce the contractual rights of members of a community against other members or its governing body or to ensure that property held on trust is used for the purposes of the trust” [para 45: emphasis added].
The decision of the California State Court of Appeal seems to be on all fours with that line of reasoning.
With thanks to Religion Clause for the lead.