The court did rule that Judge Linfield erred in accepting Mr Lancaster's argument on behalf of Mrs Bush and the ACA that the control of the St Mary's building was an ecclesiastical issue in which the courts could not intervene. I always thought this argument was unsustainable. In effect, it meant that the US First Amendment allowed a sect to determine that a member was a heretic, and then to decide the heretic could be burned at the stake: an ecclesiastical issue, after all, and the courts can't intervene. Clearly there are limits to "freedom of religion", and the appeals court went through US Supreme Court and California precedent to establish this.
The dispositive issue in all three cases before us – who controls St. Mary’s? – comes down to the validity of the August 2012 amendment to the articles of incorporation and bylaws. If the amendment was valid, then St. Mary’s no longer is affiliated with the ACA, and any acts by the ACA after August 6, 2012 are irrelevant. If the amendment was not valid, then, under the provisions of the bylaws, the Rector has jurisdiction over the church building, and the ACA’s post-August 6, 2012 acts have force and effect.
Although we have concluded that the validity of the August 2012 amendment may be determined through application of neutral principles of law, we cannot, as the elected Vestry argues in its briefs on appeal, order entry of judgments in its favor based upon the trial court’s factual findings in the forcible detainer action. Trial in that action was bifurcated, and the first phase addressed only whether the issues raised were ecclesiastical matters to which the court must defer to the highest ecclesiastical authority of the ACA and the DOW. The validity of the August 2012 amendment was not at issue in that phase, and therefore, Bush and the Kangs were not obligated to (and did not) present any evidence as to that issue. Instead, Bush and Kangs simply asserted that the vote to amend was “illegal” and violated the Parish’s bylaws. Therefore, even if the trial court made findings of fact that could support a finding that the amendment was valid, judgments could not be entered in favor of the elected Vestry without giving the ACA-related parties an opportunity to present evidence to support their assertion that the vote on the amendment was “illegal.” Accordingly, we reverse the judgments in all three cases before us and remand to the trial court for further proceedings to allow both sides to present evidence on the validity of the August 2012 amendment.
However, the court also ruled that the validity of the August 2012 amendment to the St Mary's Bylaws deleting any reference to membership in the ACA must be determined by the trial court. The ACA's case to date has been that this is not necessary, since their claims are an ecclesiastical issue. I think a big reason for this strategy was that the facts in the case were so bad that the ACA had to keep the court from looking at the facts. If this is the case, it seems likely that the elected St Mary's vestry will prevail when the case is retried.
On the other hand, the bottom line is that this case will not be resolved any time soon: the ACA and Mrs Bush have the option of appealing this decision to the California Supreme Court, but even if they don't do that, they will have many opportunities for continued delay at the trial court level, while remaining in possession of the parish property. The question is how far in cost and inconvenience the ACA wants to go in trying to keep a moribund parish whose property will be tied up in litigation for the foreseeable future -- and how much of the parish's property value will remain when all the litigation is concluded.
My wife notes, however, that we are not necessarily dealing with rational people. I would add that we aren't dealing with intelligent people, either.