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GA Supreme Court Rules Against Breakaway Congregation

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By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on November 22, 2011 12:06 PM

The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled against a breakaway congregation of the Episcopal Church, Christ Church, deciding that the local church's property is legally owned by the national organization.

Christ Church was founded in 1733. The church co-founded the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia and joined the Episcopal Church in 1823. In 2007, the Episcopal Church affirmed its first openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. After this move, the congregation voted to sever its ties to the national organization. They became affiliated with an Anglican diocese in Uganda.

But, Christ Church refused to give up the buildings and property where their church was located.

The national church sued, wanting a declaration that the historic building in Savannah was held in trust for the benefit of the Episcopal Church and not the local breakaway congregation. The property is valued at $3 million.

The Georgia Supreme Court's decision declares that the property is owned by the national church.

In coming to its conclusion, the court looked to parties' intentions when it came to the property. The court pointed out that the local congregation was aware of, and even abided by, the Episcopal Church's canons with regards to property. Namely, that property held by the local church was held in trust, and that in no way could the local church consecrate, alienate, or take property without the parent church's consent.

The Georgia Supreme Court pointed out that an individual's freedom of religion lets local congregations leave the national organization if they so choose. But, it does not give them the right to take property from the national church if they do. For now, Reuters reports, Christ Church is considering appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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