A Colorado judge ruled Tuesday that a breakaway Episcopal congregation in Colorado Springs must return its church building to the diocese, marking the latest chapter in the ongoing national exodus from the Episcopal Church.
District Court Judge Larry Schwartz found that the historic, Gothic-style Grace Church and St. Stephen’s property is held in trust for the Colorado Episcopal Diocese and does not belong to the current parishioners.
“While freedom of religion recognizes the right of any faction within a church to leave that church whenever they choose, the trust that has been created through past generations of members of Grace Church and St. Stephen’s prohibits the departing parish members from taking the property with them,” Judge Schwartz said in the ruling.
Two years ago, the rector and a majority of the church leadership and parishioners split with the diocese and joined the theologically conservative, Va.-based Convocation of Anglicans in North America. Instead of vacating the property, the breakaway church continued to hold services at the Tejon Street campus, valued at $17 million.
The ensuing lawsuit was one of about 55 property dispute cases being waged nationwide between the Episcopal Church and formerly Episcopal congregations that have broken away in disagreement over the church’s increasingly liberal theological direction.
So far the courts have split on the issue. In December, a Virginia court ruled in favor of a dozen breakaway Episcopal congregations attempting to remain in their church buildings. A month later, the California Supreme Court decided in favor of the Episcopal Church in a similar property dispute involving three congregations.
Decisions are pending in cases under way in Pittsburgh; Fort Worth, Texas; Quincy, Ill.; and the San Joaquin Valley, Calif.
During the five-week trial in Colorado Springs, Grace Church’s attorneys argued that the breakaway congregation had incorporated as a separate nonprofit corporation under Colorado law, not as a subsidiary of the Episcopal Church.
The Rev. Donald Armstrong, rector of Grace Church, said Tuesday that the congregation would review the ruling before deciding how to proceed, but added that the church had a “Plan B.”
“As to the future of our congregation, it’s the people and not the building that is at the heart of our life in Christ,” he said. “This decision is one major step out of the ambiguity in which we have lived these past two years and will allow us to more readily refocus on Gospel work and service.”
The Rev. Robert O’Neill, the Episcopal Church’s bishop of Colorado, praised the court’s decision. “We are extremely pleased that present and future generations of Episcopalians in the Colorado Springs community will continue to worship on Tejon Street,” he said.
Not all Grace Church parishioners left the denomination. About 500 continued to worship as Episcopalians under the name Grace and St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, but did so at a nearby church.
The group, which maintained a church leadership and a priest in residence during its two-year “exile,” said the ruling allowed its members to return to their rightful parish. “During the past two years of exile, our parish congregation has shown the meaning of a faith community. Now, we’re coming home,” said Lynn Olney, senior warden at the Episcopal church.