Judge orders Morehead City property restored to Diocese of East Carolina

January 15, 2002

A North Carolina judge has ruled that the property of a Morehead City parish belongs to the Diocese of East Carolina and not to a group affiliated with the Anglican Mission in America.

In the summary judgment ruling issued by Special Superior Court Judge John R. Jolly, Jr. on January 10, the judge maintained that his decision was based on a 'clear mandate from the U.S. Supreme Court' in Jones v. Wolf and other relevant case law.'

'I have been unable to escape the conclusion that First Amendment principles of free exercise of religion-the requirements of deference by the courts to internal church governance-dictate that in the context of this case the Plaintiffs are entitled to judgment as a matter of law,' the order said.

That conclusion is similar to an opinion issued by U.S. District Judge Peter Messitte in a dispute between Washington bishop pro tempore Jane Dixon and the vestry of a Maryland congregation over the priest the vestry called as the congregation's rector. Messitte also cited cases upholding the hierarchical nature of the Episcopal Church.

Jolly's ruling stated that the properties owned in the name of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church for the Diocese of East Carolina should be immediately restored to the diocese for use by St. Andrew's Episcopal Church of Morehead City, with the diocese declared the owner of the property 'in fee simple' and any 'cloud' on the title removed.

The AMiA group, which has been calling itself St. Andrew's Anglican Church, is 'restrained and enjoined from the use of the name St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, or any designation confusingly similar therewith,' and is ordered to account for all property 'received or appropriated' following the takeover of St. Andrew's assets on February 28, 2000. They are also ordered to pay court costs, excluding the plaintiffs' attorney's fees.

A request for an order directing the AMiA congregation to 'remove themselves' from St. Andrews' premises was not included in the order, and Jolly specified that the order itself would be stayed until any appeal is decided.