When a congregation divorces its church, who gets the building and the money?
Washington courts have traditionally sided with the church hierarchy, which is an “injustice,” according to Spokane attorney William Powell.
Powell represents the Rev. Robert Creech, who recently renounced the Episcopal Church and converted to the Antiochan Orthodox Christian Church, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.
Creech and his 240 followers don’t want to leave their century-old church building, however. They claim ownership of Holy Trinity Church on West Dean and neighboring properties, as well as a trust fund and endowment worth about $350,000.
The Episcopal Diocese responded with a lawsuit, seeking a court order giving the mother church control over the assets.
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor heard legal arguments from both sides Tuesday, ending a two-day hearing.
O’Connor said she will study the issues further and announce her decision this afternoon.
Powell urged the judge to depart from legal precedent and “do some justice by providing that these people who paid for the property over the last 90 years…have some right to it.”
The vast majority of the congregation at Holy Trinity voted April 30 to split from the Episcopal Church, renouncing its liberalism.
That group should have the right to decide what services should be held in its sanctuary, Powell maintained.
Attorney Peter Witherspoon, representing the diocese, called that argument short-sighted.
Generations of church members built Holy Trinity, he said.
Until now, they all worshipped as Episcopalians.
As for the congregation in exile, Witherspoon said: “They voted to leave…They left. However, the property remains.”
Witherspoon said Holy Trinity’s 1906 articles of incorporation, bylaws and constitution require adherence to the doctrine of the national Episcopal Church.
Washington is one of only seven U.S. states that automatically side in favor of church hierarchies in parishlevel property disputes, according to Powell and co-counsel Virginia Worthington.