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Faithful Ex-United Methodists Win Their Property Back, Apostate UMC Considers Trying To Steal It Back, Again

Fresno congregation wins ruling for property

By Ron Orozco and Jody Murray
The Fresno Bee

(Updated Saturday, August 21, 2004, 6:45 AM)

A Fresno congregation that severed ties with the United Methodist Church over disagreements about same-sex union ceremonies can hang on to its chapel and surrounding property, a state appellate court has ruled.

The decision overturns a Superior Court judge's ruling that United Methodist Church controlled the property where St. Luke's Community Church meets.

A lawyer for United Methodist Church said the denomination likely will appeal to the state Supreme Court and warned that the appellate ruling could have a powerful effect on the relationship between congregations and their parent churches.

The Aug. 13 ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal is the latest turn in a four-year legal battle between St. Luke's and United Methodist Church. St. Luke's, which has a membership of about 170, still meets on the disputed property at East Fountain Way and North Palm Avenue in west-central Fresno.

In a unanimous decision, the appellate court ruled that St. Luke's acted legally in declaring that the California-Nevada Annual Conference of United Methodist Church did not own the property.

The ruling overturned Judge Wayne R. Ellison's decision in 2002 that the local church could not revoke that trust.

"It's been a long road," said the Rev. Kevin Smith, pastor at St. Luke's. "It is rather substantial good news."

The local church was called St. Luke's United Methodist Church in 2000, when it severed its affiliation with United Methodist Church by rewriting its articles of incorporation.

That year, the California-Nevada Annual Conference suspended St. Luke's pastor David Wainscott, who objected to regional leaders not punishing ministers who he said defied denomination policy by blessing same-sex "holy unions." The conference cleared 68 ministers, including several from Fresno, to bless a same-sex union in Sacramento in 1999.

St. Luke's asserted that the denomination's regional leaders had broken with the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church's guide for proper conduct.

"St. Luke's is theologically conservative whereas the Conference has gone the other way," St. Luke's contended in documents filed in response to a 2000 lawsuit filed by the California-Nevada Annual Conference.

Bob Shannon, a lawyer representing United Methodist Church, said the organization is still considering whether to appeal, but that an appeal is "very likely."

Bishop Beverly Shamana of the California-Nevada Annual Conference said: "We agree with the earlier decision -- that's our position. The courts did what they felt they needed to do. We are considering our options."

Added Smith: "Now, we get to wait. I'm sure the conference is going to appeal. I hope they don't. But what is done with it is God's business."

Ellison ruled in 2002 that wording in the state Corporations Code supported United Methodist's contention that the Book of Discipline spells out a trust agreement with local churches that St. Luke's could not sever.

The appellate court, however, agreed with St. Luke's that "basic principles of trust law" hold that a trust agreement can't be irrevocable unless the property owner -- in this case, St. Luke's -- makes it so.

Shannon said the ruling could have a chilling effect on a denomination's ability to protect itself in disagreements with individual congregations. He said the Book of Discipline is a clear example of how churches can effectively govern themselves in such disputes.

The appellate ruling, Shannon said, "is very disruptive to how the United Methodist Church works generally and with how it works within the framework of the Book of Discipline."

Smith, however, said state law has always been on his congregation's side.

"California corporate law allows us, as owners of the property, to change terms of the trust in which we hold the property," he said. "We asked the court to affirm -- and they said yes, rather resoundingly."

Vickie Armour Healy, Fresno district superintendent for the California-Nevada Annual Conference, disagreed with the appellate court's decision.

"The trust clause has been part of our heritage," Healy said. "It's been important throughout history to assure churches make property available to United Methodists to serve communities where they are located."

St. Luke's congregants received word of the court's decision via telephone and celebrated at services Sunday. They say they're grateful for the opportunity to remain in the neighborhood, where the church has focused its ministries since 1949.

Tom Sommers, an elder, said: "It's been a battle, a long run, almost four years. But I've seen our people healthier than ever. We've really come together."



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