By Kirk Petersen
The Episcopal Church (TEC) has paid $4.5 million in legal fees and expenses to the Fort Worth diocese of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), in a mediated settlement after more than a decade of litigation involving an estimated $100 million in church properties.
After 12 years of wins and losses along the way, TEC lost its final appeal when the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case. That left standing a Texas Supreme Court ruling that the ACNA diocese is the continuing “Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth,” and thus owns the $100 million in disputed property. The TEC diocese thereafter changed its name to the Episcopal Church in North Texas.
Amanda Skofstad, public affairs officer for the Episcopal Church, released the following statement:
The Episcopal Church made the payment in order to resolve the matter – with no admission of liability – to protect and defend all loyal Episcopalians in North Texas and allow them the freedom to move forward in their congregations.
This case was only one in a series of cases over the last decade and a half nationally in which The Episcopal Church, and a number of its dioceses, have successfully protected hundreds of millions of dollars of property held in trust for the denomination and its future generations.
“The proceeds will allow the Diocese to settle certain deferred expenses and to return to investing in ministry and the growth of God’s Kingdom,” the ACNA diocese said in a news release. “Parishes that were legally constrained by plaintiffs’ (TEC’s) objections from undertaking new construction are finally free to resume these projects.”
“For 12 years, we’ve deferred the normal work of a diocese,” Suzanne Gill, director of communications for the ACNA diocese, told TLC.
Katie Sherrod, director of communications for the Episcopal Church of North Texas, said the settlement was paid by the Church Center, not the diocese, as “an incarnational symbol of their support for our diocese, and we are very grateful.”
The $4.5 million settlement is a large amount of money by the standards of both organizations. It represents just more than 10 percent of the Episcopal Church’s $44.4 million budget for 2021, and is nearly three times the ACNA diocese’s 2021 budget of $1.6 million. Gill said the settlement does not cover all of the diocese’s expenses for the 12-year litigation.
After the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal, six Episcopal churches had to vacate the buildings in Fort Worth and its suburbs where they had worshipped for years. Episcopal News Service reported that while one of the churches chose to disband, the others have settled into temporary homes to resume worship. ACNA congregations are worshipping in two of the vacated churches, including the largest, All Saints’ Fort Worth, while the other four buildings remain empty.
Fort Worth was one of five dioceses where the bishop and a majority of the congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church more than a decade ago, in response to TEC’s acceptance of same-sex relationships and the ordination of gay priests, among other concerns. Property litigation has largely been settled in the dioceses of Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, San Joaquin, and the former Diocese of Quincy, which was absorbed into the Diocese of Chicago. Some outcomes favored TEC and some ACNA, depending largely on differences in state laws.
South Carolina remains a legal battlefield. Three years after the South Carolina Supreme Court issued a fractious 2017 ruling that awarded ownership of $500 million in disputed properties to the Episcopal Diocese, the trial judge who was to implement the settlement essentially overruled the higher court and awarded ownership in June 2020 to what is now the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. The case has been appealed back to the state supreme court, and briefs have been exchanged but no hearing date has been set.