Good Shepherd Rosemont Update: Summary Judgment hearing on Monday

I want to get off Japan as a topic, and mention another topic that is close to my heart: Pennsylvania religious society law. Long story, but this post and this one are good background.

For those of you who are not familiar with the story, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Church, called the Episcopal Church, is slowly breaking up. It’s been going on for some time now, due to culture war disputes, and the tools of choice have been litigation, or compelling others to go seek litigation to resolve matters that are easily solved by canons.

In Rosemont, Pennsylvania, there is a church that has been having the local diocese (next higher level) giving them a hard time for almost 10 years.

The bishop in the diocese wants to take the Rosemont property, because he doesn’t like the priest there, Rev. David Moyer. Different than in the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal parish has some say in who is the priest of the parish. But the local Bishop has been trying every trick imaginable to get rid of Dr. Moyer.

About eight years ago, the Bishop decided to pull Moyer’s license to preach. But that didn’t stop Moyer. So next, the Bishop (and his Standing Committee, which is like a board of directors of the Diocese) decided to sue the parish board (Vestry), try to take the property, and kick out Moyer.

The law firm representing the Bishop is Drinker Biddle & Reath in Philadelphia. They are seeking summary judgment on behalf of the Diocese. Summary judgment is part of motion practice in most court systems. What summary judgment usually means is that there is no dispute as to material facts, and a case can be decided by having the judge determine the law. (In the common law system, the jury usually determines the facts, and the judge the law. Quite often, though, the judge can determine both the facts and the law.)

When I had the St. Clement’s litigation almost 20 years ago, because of the non-canonical and downright illegal things the St. Clement’s vestry and rector were doing at the time, the judges in Philadelphia—mostly Roman Catholics–wouldn’t give me the time of day. They looked to the rules of their own denomination (Roman Catholicism) and applied those to the case I brought. The legal jargon is “hierarchical polity”, but the Roman Catholic judges basically defined “hierarchical polity” in Pennsylvania to be the same as however the Roman Catholic church is governed. Long story. I’m sure I’ve blogged it before.

For me, the particular issue was “who decides membership in a parish?” where the then-vestry was not acknowledging my membership rights. (This is small bore, but in the Episcopal Church, the member decides where his/her membership resides.) The Philadelphia judges decided that a Bishop determines this—again, because that’s how it works in the Roman Catholic Church.

And to tell you: this is very much Pennsylvania. Although Roman Catholics are a distinct minority within the state (maybe 33%), they have a lot of influence, because it’s very much a “home rule” state where local officials get a lot of power. So they tend to get pushy about their ways and their political agenda. Abortion is a hot-button issue in Pennsy. Wonder why . . .

Back to the Church of Good Shepherd: If the Orphans’ Court judge in Montgomery County, Stanley J. Ott, decides to rule as if Good Shepherd is a Roman Catholic Church, he is going to give the property to the Bishop in summary judgment. Simply because he’s the bishop.

If the judge is actually going to study the case, what I think he’s going to conclude is that even if the vestry and Reverend Moyer are not eligible to continue in their parish roles, the property is held in trust for the parishioners of the Good Shepherd, and they would be entitled to continue to control the property through a qualifying vestry. The question would then be, who decides if the vestry still qualifies to hold the property?

In my view, this is a question of fact–and very likely, one that is material and disputed. If the vestry employs a rector who is not licensed to preach in the diocese, is the vestry disqualified? How?

There are a lot of particulars to this case, and a lot of bylaws in the Episcopal Church canons that really need to be studied by the civil court, to determine exactly what the rights to property are within the denomination. It doesn’t just impact the Good Shepherd. It actually impacts every denomination in Pennsylvania where you have any leadership that is referred to as “bishop” or “elder” or some other term of authority.

In my opinion, summary judgment would be inappropriate as a result of the actions in court this coming Monday. But we shall see.