Bishop and Diocese of Colorado v. Mote, 83SC104

Decision Date13 January 1986
Docket NumberNo. 83SC104,83SC104
Citation716 P.2d 85
PartiesThe BISHOP AND DIOCESE OF COLORADO, a Colorado nonprofit corporation, the Reverend Charles Larry Day, Allen Uyeda, Robert Douglass, H. David Huskin, Harry Thom, John Brown, Joseph Esch, Carla Parnell, Mildred Mullenax, John Helmore, Otis Drury, Marian Lattimore, as members of the Vestry of the Episcopal Parish of St. Mary's, the Episcopal Parish of St. Mary's, and Episcopal Church of St. Mary, a Colorado nonprofit corporation, Petitioners, v. The Reverend James O. MOTE, John Archibold, Marvin Olsen, John Brainerd, Wayne Gill, Chris Woodbury, Richard Atchison, Charles Buell, Rick Hill, Walter Kulp, James Lucero, Lorne Scofield, and Saint Mary's Church, a Colorado nonprofit corporation, Respondents.
CourtColorado Supreme Court

Miles M. Gersh, Denver, for petitioners.

Skelton, Oviatt & O'Dell, Forrest C. O'Dell, Wheat Ridge, for all respondents except John Archibold.

John Archibold, pro se.

LOHR, Justice.

We granted certiorari to review the judgment of the Colorado Court of Appeals in Bishop & Diocese of Colorado v. Mote, 668 P.2d 948 (Colo.App.1983) ( Mote), involving a dispute over the control of the real and personal property of St. Mary's Church in Denver. The case arose as a result of the decision of a majority of the members of St. Mary's to secede from the national church, the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (PECUSA), because of differences over doctrine. The group remaining loyal to the general church 1 brought suit to determine the rights to the property of St. Mary's. The Denver District Court sustained the claims of the plaintiffs and decreed that rightful control of the church property was vested in the minority group who remained loyal to the general church. The court of appeals reversed, concluding that the church property should be awarded to the secessionist majority group of St. Mary's members. We elected to review the court of appeals' decision to determine whether that court erred in adopting certain legal standards to be applied in resolving church property disputes; whether the standards as adopted by the court of appeals, if proper, could be applied to the facts of this case to the detriment of the plaintiffs without resulting in an unconstitutional retroactive application of law; and whether the court of appeals erred in holding that the facts as found by the district court did not establish that an express trust had been imposed upon the local church property in favor of the general church. We reverse.

I.

The essential facts as found by the district court are based in part on a stipulation by the parties, are supported by evidence in the record, and are not disputed here.

St. Mary's Church was first established as a mission within PECUSA in the 1930s and was incorporated under the laws of the state of Colorado in 1934. See §§ 2384-2399, Compiled Laws of Colorado (1921 and 1932 Supp.), now codified as amended as article 50 of title 7, 3 C.R.S. (1973 & 1985 Supp.) (relating to the incorporation of religious, educational and benevolent societies). 2 Legal title to the real and personal property at issue in this dispute was acquired and is held by the corporate entity, St. Mary's Church.

The original incorporators specified in their Affidavit of Incorporation that they had "unanimously decided to organize as a Protestant Episcopal Church under the diocese of Colorado with the corporate name of SAINT MARYS CHURCH." The diocese is one of the subordinate geographical units of the national church, PECUSA, and is presently incorporated as a Colorado nonprofit corporation under the name of The Bishop and Diocese of Colorado. The diocese is presided over by a bishop, who is both its chief ecclesiastical authority and the chief executive officer of its corporate entity. The diocese has a legislative and policy-making body called the Annual Convention and an executive body, the Diocesan Executive Council, which has the responsibility to carry out the policies and programs of the Annual Convention and has broad responsibility over financial and property matters in the diocese.

In 1954, the membership of St. Mary's sought to upgrade their status to that of a PECUSA parish within the diocese of Colorado. In seeking to be recognized as a parish, the membership of St. Mary's unanimously adopted a resolution acceding to the constitutions of the national church and of the diocese, recognizing the authority of the General Convention of PECUSA, the policy-making body of the national church, and promising obedience to the canons of the national church and of the diocese. The diocese approved the request.

In 1955, the year after it became a parish, St. Mary's requested and received the consent of the diocese to revise its articles of incorporation. The diocesan canons required, and still require, the consent of the bishop and the chancellor or vice-chancellor of the diocese before any parish may file or amend articles of incorporation.

The revised articles provided, among other things, that "[t]he objects and purposes for which said Parish is incorporated are to administer the temporalities of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Parish"; that "the corporation may not incur indebtedness which may alienate or encumber church property without the consent in writing of the Diocese of Colorado, a corporation, expressed by resolution of its Board of Trustee[s]"; and that the corporation "does hereby expressly accede to all the provisions of the constitution and canons adopted by the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and to all of the provisions of the constitution and canons of the Diocese of Colorado." The articles of incorporation as amended in 1955 were not altered until 1976, when a majority of the membership of St. Mary's voted to disaffiliate from PECUSA.

Along with the amended articles of incorporation in 1955, St. Mary's adopted corporate bylaws. These bylaws provided that the governing authority of the corporation would consist of the parish rector as president, a senior warden, a junior warden, and nine vestrymen, all acting together as a Board of Trustees. Article II of the bylaws, captioned "Accession," provided that St. Mary's acceded to the constitution and canons of the diocese and the national church, and that "[t]he parish shall have control of its own local affairs but nothing shall be done which conflicts with the Canons of the Church, either General or Diocesan." There was no change in the accession provision from 1955 until the disaffiliation in 1976.

Beginning in the early 1970s, several doctrinal controversies occurred within PECUSA concerning changes in the Book of Common Prayer, the authority of bishops to terminate marriages, the propriety of the ordination of women to the priesthood and other matters. In September of 1976, the General Convention of PECUSA approved the ordination of women to the priesthood. Two months later, at the Annual Convention of the Diocese of Colorado, the delegation from St. Mary's presented a resolution calling upon the diocese to withdraw from PECUSA in protest to the ordination of women and other actions taken by PECUSA. When the convention rejected the resolution, most of the members of the St. Mary's delegation walked out. On November 28, 1976, at a meeting of the membership of St. Mary's, the members voted 197 to 79 to withdraw from PECUSA and to amend the articles of incorporation by deleting all provisions recognizing the authority of PECUSA and the diocese. The secessionist majority voted a year later to affiliate St. Mary's Church with the newly formed Anglican Catholic Church.

Soon after the disaffiliation vote, the bishop met with the minority of St. Mary's members still loyal to PECUSA and formally recognized this minority as representing the PECUSA parish of St. Mary's. These individuals have since been meeting in quarters rented from another Denver church. The loyal minority elected new vestry members to govern the parish to replace those who had withdrawn from PECUSA. On December 14, 1976, the Diocesan Executive Council adopted a resolution declaring that the diocese "does not approve or recognize the action taken by St. Mary's Church to withdraw from the Diocese of Colorado, supports those members of St. Mary's Church who voted against such withdrawal, and affirms its ecclesiastical ties and its rights with respect to the non-profit corporation known as St. Mary's Church."

The secessionist majority refused requests and demands to surrender possession of the property of St. Mary's Church either to the diocese or to the governing body representing those members of St. Mary's who remained loyal to PECUSA. For this reason, the plaintiffs, the group loyal to PECUSA, 3 filed suit in Denver District Court seeking declaratory and injunctive relief, including the recovery of possession of all real and personal property of St. Mary's held by the secessionists. After a trial to the court, the district court, on January 21, 1980, found the facts as outlined above and decreed that the purported amendments of November 28, 1976, to the articles of incorporation of St. Mary's Church were ineffective and that the prior articles remained in effect; that all real and personal property to which the corporate entity, St. Mary's Church, held legal or equitable title as of November 28, 1976, "is rightfully under the dominion and control of the individual plaintiffs in this case, in their capacity as rector and members of the vestry of that church"; and that the individual defendants and other former members of St. Mary's who withdrew from PECUSA had no interest of any kind in the real and personal property to which St. Mary's Church held legal or equitable title as of November 28, 1976. The court directed the individual defendants to surrender possession and control of that...

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