St. James Church of Newport Beach, California, was among several conservative congregations that left the Episcopal Church (USA) after the 2003 consecration of a bishop who was an openly practicing homosexual, as well as disputes over the divinity of Christ and the authority of Scripture.

The doctrinal issue was the "last straw," Praveen Bunyan, rector of St. James, told CT. "A significant number of leaders have denied the lordship of Christ, and that comes from their low, low view of Scripture."

Now, in a decision that conservatives hope will have national implications, the Orange County Superior Court has told St. James it can not only secede, but also keep its property, too.

Episcopal Church law usually places congregational properties in trust with the diocese and the national church. Courts in California, however, have followed "neutral principles of law." If names of congregation members are on church property deeds and the articles of incorporation, and the name of the diocese is not, the congregation's demands hold more sway.

In an August ruling, Judge David C. Velasquez sided with the right of St. James to secede and retain property as a matter of free speech. "Such acts arise out of and are in furtherance of the exercise of the right to speak," Velasquez wrote. Velasquez dismissed a diocesan lawsuit to take the property.

David Anderson, a former rector at St. James and now CEO of the conservative American Anglican Council, told CT that J. Jon Bruno, now bishop of the Los Angeles diocese, sent St. James a letter in 1991 waiving any claims to a $7 million piece of land the church purchased for a new building.

"Where a church has bought and paid for everything, why in the world the diocese thinks they have a claim I don't know," Anderson said.

Bruno, who was not available for comment, said in a prepared statement that both the diocese and the national church will appeal the ruling "to ensure compliance with our canons and to preserve property rightfully belonging to the national church and the diocese."

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