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An appellate court has ruled in favor of the breakaway Anglican diocese in one aspect of a lawsuit pitting rival Episcopal factions in the San Joaquin Valley and foothills.
Thursday's decision by the 5th District Court of Appeal overturned an earlier ruling in Fresno County Superior Court, where the complicated case now returns.
The appeals court struck down the Fresno court's ruling naming Jerry Lamb as the true bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin and as such, owner of all diocesan property. The 2009 summary judgment had given Lamb an advantage toward regaining the property lost when former Bishop John-David Schofield left the national church and eventually formed the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.
It was Schofield's first legal victory over Lamb in the ongoing property dispute. A new court date in Fresno has not been set, spokesmen on both sides said.
The lawsuit stems from Schofield having led the diocese away from the Episcopal Church and to the oversight of a South American archbishop in December 2007. The move kept them as part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal church is a member. But the Episcopal Church claimed Schofield had abandoned his clerical vows and deposed him.
Schofield and 40 parishes aligned with him from Bakersfield to Stockton hold a conservative theology opposing the Episcopal Church's increasingly liberal stance on biblical issues such as the ordinations of gay bishops and whether Jesus is the only way to salvation. The other seven parishes and members of some of the 40 departing parishes wanted to remain Episcopal and elected Lamb as their bishop.
Lamb later sued Schofield for the return of all diocesan properties, including its headquarters in Fresno and other assets such as investment funds. He also sued independently owned parishes, including St. Francis in Turlock and St. James (the historic Red Church) in Sonora.
In Thursday's ruling, the appellate justices said the issue before them was "not resolution of a property dispute (but) solely this issue: Who is the Bishop of the Diocese of San Joaquin, John-David Schofield or Jerry A. Lamb? This is an issue the First Amendment forbids us from adjudicating."
The matter of who is bishop, outside of property issues, the court wrote, is a matter for the church itself. Civil courts must not decide "questions of religious doctrine," the justices wrote.
The facts are clear, the justices said, and not a matter for courts to decide: Schofield was the bishop until Jan. 11, 2008. Lamb has been the bishop since March 29, 2008. "Third, at some point Schofield became the Anglican Bishop presiding over an Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, affiliated with the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of South America."
Thus, the justices said, the trial court erred by naming Lamb as the bishop.
"In further proceedings in the trial court, these facts may be relevant to the court's consideration of the issues before it, but the validity of such removals and appointments are not subject to further adjudication by the trial court," the justices wrote.
Michael Glass, attorney for Lamb and the Modesto-based Episcopal Diocese, brushed off the ruling.
"Think sacrifice fly ball," he said in a news release. "Sure, we might have taken an out, but we just put the rest of the case in scoring position."
Lamb was traveling to his home in New Mexico and unavailable for comment. The Rev. Mark Hall, who is aligned with Lamb, said the ruling was not a defeat.
"Our basic feeling is the very points we were trying to make were affirmed, that is the Episcopal Church has the right to decide the bishop," he said. " The rest of the case, in our perspective, seems pretty cut and dried."
Schofield's attorney Rusty van Rozeboom said the ruling gave his side "more than we asked for." It vacated the Superior Court ruling and threw out the "first cause" named in the lawsuit.
"We're certainly pleased with that," he said, adding, "We were hoping the court would chime in on the way the (lower) court construed the church documents, but the court didn't go there."
Resolving the property issues could take a year or more, he said.
"It's a terribly complicated case," he said. And, he added, it comes with negative strings attached.
"It is a bad situation. Both sides suffer," he said. "You have Christians fighting in court. It doesn't help anybody."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2012.