In re Episcopal Church Cases (2009)

In re Episcopal Church Cases the California Supreme Court decided unanimously that churches that break away from a national denomination may not take the church assets with them.

The state high court said the property of St. James Episcopal Church in Newport Beach is owned by the national church, not the congregation.

The Court agreed to review the case “primarily to decide how the secular courts of this state should resolve disputes over church property. State courts must not decide questions of religious doctrine; those are for the church to resolve. Accordingly, if resolution of the property dispute involves a doctrinal dispute, the court must defer to the position of the highest ecclesiastical authority that has decided the doctrinal point.”

They further stated that such an exercise “requires the civil court to determine matters at the very core of a religion—the interpretation of particular church doctrines and the importance of those doctrines to the religion. Plainly, the First Amendment forbids civil courts from playing such a role.”