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Episcopal property lawsuit filed here

Saturday, October 25, 2003

By Steve Levin, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A Shadyside church yesterday filed a lawsuit that could presage efforts to keep Episcopal Church property from being divided piecemeal in the event of a denomination split.

Calvary Episcopal Church sued Bishop Robert W. Duncan Jr., his assistant bishop and the Pittsburgh Diocese's board of trustees to prevent them from transferring ownership of any church property.

The suit was filed in Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas by Calvary, its rector, the Rev. Harold T. Lewis, and its senior warden, Philip Richard Roberts.

It is the latest twist in an Episcopal Church conflicted over the pending consecration of an openly gay bishop Nov. 2, a move that leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion have warned could destroy the church.

National Episcopal leaders were meeting in Wisconsin yesterday and could not be reached for comment. But J. Robert Wright, historiographer of the Episcopal Church USA, said it appeared that the suit could be a prototype of efforts to keep church property intact in the aftermath of a split in the denomination.

Yesterday's suit was filed not against the diocese but on its behalf through a legal procedure known as ad litem. It allows members of an unincorporated association -- in this case, the diocese -- to assert the need for compliance with the association's constitution and laws.

The complaint was brought "to preserve and protect the unity and integrity of the property" of the national church, the Pittsburgh diocese and the parishes, missions and other institutions and organizations of those church bodies.

It states that Duncan and the others, "in disregard of the ... constitution and canons that granted them authority over such property and assets ... have failed to discharge their obligations" because they "threatened improperly to transfer, and/or have transferred, property contrary to such interests."

It charges them with breach of fiduciary duty and breach of contract. It seeks injunctions against any effort to change property ownership.

Lewis said the suit evolved in response to six resolutions approved at a special diocesan convention last month that defied the national church and, in the case of church property ownership, flouted current canon law.

It was the sixth of those resolutions, calling for releasing control of property to individual parishes, that was most controversial. Church canon law and several cases recently adjudicated in civil courts have held that the diocese is the primary trustee of church property.

The Pittsburgh Diocese's special convention and similar ones around the country were called after the national church confirmed as bishop an openly gay priest, Rev. V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, at its triennial convention this summer.

Robinson's pending consecration has exposed the deep disagreements within the 70 million-member worldwide Anglican Communion over human sexuality, same-sex unions and biblical authority. The 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church is the American component of the communion.

At a meeting of world leaders of the Anglican Communion Oct. 15-16 in London, the primates said Robinson's consecration could destroy the communion.

Duncan said he regretted the lawsuit but it didn't surprise him.

"I think the action on their part is definitely premature," he said, "since what we've done is try to protect all the churches' property."

Lewis chaired a meeting Thursday night of the vestries and clergy of parishes that had voted against the six resolutions. About 150 people attended the gathering in Calvary's refectory. Several lawyers spoke, including some from the Downtown law firm of DeForest Koscelnik Yokitis & Kaplan, which represents Calvary and Lewis.

Lewis said the lawsuit was about preserving the church and nothing else.

"This is not, No. 1, an ad hominem attack on the bishop or anyone else," said Lewis, whose church is the second largest in a diocese that includes 11 counties and 20,000 members. "And this has nothing to do with Gene Robinson; this is not about homosexuality.

"This is about the Episcopal Church. The court, I think, will uphold our position because the people of the Episcopal Church in this diocese are entitled to the use and the enjoyment of the property."


Steve Levin can be reached at slevin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1919.

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