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V&E Wins Critical Appellate Decision in Historic Church Property Dispute

V&E Wins Critical Appellate Decision in Historic Church Property Dispute Background Decorative Image

Vinson & Elkins has secured a crucial appellate victory in a landmark battle for control over the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and more than $100 million worth of historic church property. The dispute, which is the largest church property case in Texas history, concerns the First Amendment’s impact on state property laws and has produced the Texas Supreme Court’s first church property opinions in more than a century.

On April 5, 2018, the Fort Worth Court of Appeals ruled that the loyal Episcopalians of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, represented by V&E, are entitled to control of both the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth and its Corporation. In a 178-page decision written by the Chief Justice, the appeals court overturned a summary judgment in favor of the breakaway faction that had seized de facto control of the Episcopal Diocese and 48 Episcopal parishes and missions, taking property they had sworn to protect for The Episcopal Church that has been in the Church as far back as 1838.

Noting that the parties agreed that the Corporation held legal title to all of the property in dispute, the Court of Appeals analyzed two examples of the many deeds at issue in the case. The Court of Appeals rendered judgment in favor of the loyal Episcopalians on those two deeds, both of which relate to property occupied by All Saints Episcopal Church (Fort Worth). The Court of Appeals then remanded the many other, similar deeds to the trial court so it could rule on those deeds using the same analysis.

The appellate decision is the latest in a series of rulings that date back to 2011, when V&E originally won summary judgment on behalf of the loyal Episcopalians in the trial court. Subsequently, the breakaway faction filed a direct appeal with the Texas Supreme Court, which, along with a companion case, resulted in a 2013 decision changing Texas’ church property doctrine that had been in effect for over a century.

The Texas Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case for proceedings under the new doctrine, which required the trial court to decide the property ownership issue using “neutral principles of law.” The United States Supreme Court denied an interlocutory petition for writ of certiorari supported by numerous religious denominations. On remand, the trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the breakaway faction under the new doctrine, prompting the current appeal.

On April 19, 2016, V&E partner Danny Tobey successfully argued the case to the Fort Worth Court of Appeals that the trial court erred in its application of the “neutral principles of law” doctrine under Texas and U.S. Supreme Court precedent by extending it to the question of who may be members of, and ultimately control, the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth.

The V&E team included partners Thomas Leatherbury and Danny Tobey and senior associates Robert Ritchie, Stephen Gilstrap, and Kent Piacenti.

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