Friday, January 30, 2009

Sam Hodges story on HB 729

Sam Hodges of the Dallas News has done an excellent story on House Bill.
Bill pushed by Corsicana Episcopal congregation would alter law on church land disputes
10:29 PM CST on Thursday, January 29, 2009
The Dallas Morning News

A small congregation south of Dallas is causing a stir within its denomination and beyond by trying to rewrite Texas law regarding certain church property disputes.

Leaders of St. John's Episcopal Church in Corsicana enlisted state Rep. Byron Cook, a Republican from that town, to introduce legislation that would strengthen the hand of congregations that leave a denomination in a doctrinal dispute and then end up in court with the denomination over who owns the local church property.

The bill has prompted comment on blogs that follow turmoil within the Episcopal Church, which has seen churches and even dioceses, including the one based in Fort Worth, vote to leave over such controversies as the denomination's acceptance of an openly gay bishop.

Some Episcopal Church officials are weighing in negatively on the bill.

"Our [Episcopal] Church strives for unity, and this bill is divisive," said the Rev. Andy Doyle, bishop coadjutor of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, which covers the Houston area.

Officials affiliated with other denominations also express concern.

"Our constitution says that congregations hold property in trust for the presbyteries [district governing bodies], and we would prefer that denominational rules and processes would be respected by the civil courts," said the Rev. Judy Fletcher, executive of the Synod of the Sun, a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) regional governing body that includes Texas churches.

Though the bill directs courts to find a "just and right" division of property, having "due regard" for all parties, the effect would be to shift from a traditional deference to church hierarchies, experts said.

"The congregations would say it puts them on a fairer plane. Denominations would say it stacks the deck against them," said Robert Tuttle, a church law specialist who teaches at George Washington University Law School in Washington, D.C.

Jon Nelson, a lawyer who represents Fort Worth-area Episcopalians remaining loyal to their denomination, questioned the measure on church-state separation grounds.

"When you have a hierarchical church that has determined ownership of property, I don't believe a state Legislature has the ability to change that," he said. "If it attempts to do so, I believe the legislation is unconstitutional."

But Nelson said the bill should worry a range of religious groups.

Read it all here.