Appellate Victory for TG Client
LOS ANGELES – July 23, 2014 – The California Court of Appeal ruled on July 23 in favor of TroyGould’s client, St. Mary of the Angels Church in Hollywood, reviving three lawsuits stemming from the parishioners’ effort to end the church’s affiliation with the Anglican Church in America.
In 2012, the church’s parishioners voted to amend St. Mary’s bylaws to leave the ACA, but the ACA refused to recognize the vote. A lower court had previously ruled in the ACA’s favor, saying that the First Amendment required the courts to defer to the church hierarchy. The Court of Appeal disagreed and reversed the trial court’s ruling. A three-judge appellate panel that included Associate Justice Thomas L. Willhite Jr., Presiding Justice Norman L. Epstein and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lee Smalley Edmon ruled that the court should determine the validity of the 2012 disaffiliation vote using neutral principles of law.
“It’s a great outcome,” says TroyGould litigator Russell Glazer, who argued the appeal. “We are gratified that the Court of Appeal recognized that St. Mary’s parishioners have the right to determine the direction of the church. As we’ve been saying all along, the First Amendment doesn’t prevent the courts from recognizing a congregation’s vote to change religious affiliations in accordance with the church’s bylaws.”
The appeal stems from a trio of suits filed in 2012, three years after Pope Benedict XVI changed church policy to allow Anglican parishes to join the Roman Catholic Church, and two years after St. Mary’s began the process to switch. In all three suits, the trial court ruled in October 2012 that the First Amendment required it to defer to the ACA, because to do otherwise would require it to make ecclesiastical determinations as to whether the parishioners were still church members in good standing when they voted to switch affiliations. The three suits were consolidated on appeal.
Glazer argued that by simply looking at the bylaws of the church corporation, the court could determine that the parishioners validly voted to leave the ACA, rendering the church hierarchy’s argument that it had later excommunicated the voters irrelevant. The appeals court agreed.
“If the amendment was valid, then St. Mary’s no longer is affiliated with the ACA, and any acts by the ACA after August 6, 2012, are irrelevant,” according to the court opinion. “If the amendment was not valid, then, under the provisions of the bylaws, the rector has jurisdiction over the church building, and the ACA’s post-August 6, 2012, acts have force and effect.”
St. Mary’s was founded in 1918. In 1970, the City of Los Angeles declared the Church a Historic Monument. Under the Court of Appeal’s ruling, the case will now return to the trial court for determination of whether the 2012 vote to amend St. Mary’s bylaws complied with California corporate law.