Tuesday, September 27, 2005

ct six file suit against everyone in sight

Six Episcopal Churches, their elected officers [wardens and vestries], a number of parish communicants, and five priests in Connecticut today filed a civil complaint against Andrew Smith, Episcopal Bishop of Connecticut; the Diocese of Connecticut; Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold; and nine other individuals and/or entities. The lawsuit accuses the 12 defendants of working together to infringe upon the rights of the plaintiffs in violation of the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. In addition to these federal issues, the complaint outlines multiple violations of Connecticut statutes.

The civil suit follows months of theological dispute and hostile actions by Bishop Smith, who stands in “opposition to traditional Christianity and Anglican teaching.” Bishop Seabury Church, Groton; Christ Church, Watertown; Christ & The Epiphany Church, East Haven; St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Darien; Trinity Church, Bristol; and St. John’s Episcopal Church, Bristol, have consistently supported traditional Christian belief and teaching regarding human sexuality, also upheld by the Four Instruments of Anglican Unity. In light of the serious conflict, the six churches requested alternative episcopal oversight, a request denied by Bishop Smith. Central to the complaint is the contention that Bishop Smith’s actions are motivated by a desire to impose “his own singular views of canon law, church polity and theology” on the congregations and clergy because they reject his revisionist views on theology, particularly on human sexuality.

“We have been left with no choice but to seek intervention by the civil courts in order to protect our constitutional rights and serve our congregations without interference and harassment,” said the Rev. Christopher Leighton, rector of St. Paul’s, Darien. “We are being punished for upholding Biblical truth as well as Anglican teaching, faith and practice, and our ability to proclaim the Gospel is being dramatically hindered.”

The suit asserts that the State of Connecticut has given special legal status to the constitutions and canons of the Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA) and to the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut not provided to all religions and charitable entities. Such incorporation of Episcopal constitutional and canonical components into Connecticut statutes effectively codifies them as civil law. The complaint alleges that the state of Connecticut “has entangled itself in every aspect of the temporal and certain aspects of the spiritual, operations of all the Episcopal parishes” such that Bishop Smith and other defendants represent the government in their actions. This blending of state and church violates the First Amendment prohibition against government establishment of a religion and the Fourteen Amendment guarantee of equal protection under the law, thereby supporting a claim of “state action” in respect to civil rights.

The comprehensive and multifaceted complaint outlines numerous actions of Bishop Smith and the other defendants which deprived the congregations, clergy, wardens and vestries of their constitutional rights to freedom of speech, association, inquiry and thought, property, privacy, due process of law, and equal protection of the law. The suit asserts that the effect of these various violations resulted in “chilling” their right to freedom of religion.

Specifically, the complaint states that Bishop Smith, and those in concert with him, fraudulently charged the six clergy with “abandonment of communion,” which is not only a misuse of the canon but also denies them the due process of ecclesiastical trials. The suit contends that these charges were made with the intent “to defraud the Plaintiff-Parishes of their assets.” In addition, there are allegations that Bishop Smith and other defendants interfered with the fiduciary relationship between three of the parishes and entities holding investment accounts, unlawfully preventing disbursement of funds as requested by Bishop Seabury Church, Christ Church, and Christ & the Epiphany Church. The complaint outlines numerous counts of fraud, misrepresentation, and breach of fiduciary duty, actions which violate the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act (CUTPA).

The suit also lists unlawful actions against St. John’s Church, Bristol, including: trespass, seizing church property, fraudulently claiming ownership of the church and all its assets, and appointing a parish administrator and priest-in-charge, thereby usurping legal and canonical rights of the wardens and vestry. The charges include seizing private and confidential parish records, actions violating privacy laws; committing assault and battery against the parish secretary; and using tactics of harassment and intimidation against church staff and vestry members. The suit declares that the defendants changed locks in order to deny access to the church staff, wardens, vestry and congregation, preventing them from conducting both business and worship. In addition, defendants are accused of disabling the parish website, redirecting it to the diocese’s website, and then transferring the domain name. The complaint also says that Bishop Smith’s agents falsely represented his authority and that the bishop is preventing the congregation’s access to their bank accounts and post office box.

The complaint asserts that Bishop Griswold “aided and abetted” the Diocese of Connecticut by refusing to intervene when notified of the false “abandonment of communion” charges and the illegal seizure of St. John’s, noting that his failure to respond constitutes an endorsement of Smith’s alleged misconduct. Further, the suit states that the Presiding Bishop “provided support and resources” for Smith.

The plaintiffs seek relief and judgment in a jury trial on all matters cited in the complaint as well as punitive damages.

Read the whole thing here. Via T19.

Oh Beloved, this is absolutely awful. I'm not saying that it is not necessary. Perhaps it is; I don't know all the facts of the case. But even if it is necessary, its necessity is itself awful. Baleful repentance is called for. From everyone. If the unchurched see anything, they see this bickering. What an atrocious witness to the gospel of our Lord. What sinfulness. What dereliction.

10 comments:

J-Tron said...

I sometimes wonder whether anyone at all in the Episcopal Church, conservative or liberal, has any notion of what it actually means to be in a church that has bishops. Those who believe that the episcopate is a useless relic with no real authority and who yet choose to remain in a church called "Episcopal" have failed to read the large print.

Anonymous said...

Interesting that in the absence of top-down authority, this poor branch of the divine institution of the Church turns to the palty and contingent laws of the good Ole USA for help, with a sham lawsuit that names absolutely no grounds on which civil courts can properly take jurisdiction. What the heck. So sad. This case will not get far. We need a pope.

father wb said...

Not so, anonymous.

The Supreme Court has determined that in civil disputations over Church property arising from doctrinal issues, the matter can (and has been) decided by civil courts by reference to the Church’s Constitution. Cf. Watson vs. Jones 80 U.S. 679 (1872).

Civil courts decide these cases by looking for the consistent application of the rules governing the polity of the Church in question, and will even decide on theological matters -- again only viz. consistent application -- as they touch questions of polity / property. Cf. Smith vs. Nelson, 406 U.S. 971 (1972).

Anonymous said...

Indeed, but you will notice that the case which you reference involves property claims- hence civil matters to which the civil courts will attach their adjudication. Otherwise, review of an internal religious code is a legal no-man's land.

Anonymous said...

WB:

Listen to anonymous...we need a Pope.

WM

Anonymous said...

If you are a true Christian, then you already have a Pope.

Anonymous said...

WB would like the pope to be Wittgenstein.

Eric said...

I'm new to your blog (which caught my eye).
This whole fiasco, like others in the Church remind me of what Christ told to St. Peter. "You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Sometimes, even our shepherds need to be rebuked.

Adam said...

This is indeed awful. I tend to agree that we need some kind of authority, and maybe the Pope is the way to go...not sure.

becca said...

It is indeed a very sad day when a bishop drives parishes under his oversight to such extreme measures. However, even as I applaud Christopher Leighton's courage and that of the other six parishes in CT, I am heart-broken over the lack of unity, love and spiritual faithfulness in the Episcopal Church today.