Thursday, March 12, 2009

Grace church trial is over, but decision won't come for 4 weeks

The latest trial for control of a building that belongs to the Episcopal Church has ended and a decision will be out soon.

After four weeks and dozens of witnesses, the trial to determine who owns a $17 million Gothic church and other property at 601 N. Tejon St. ended Wednesday as attorneys presented their closing arguments.

But Fourth Judicial District Court Judge Larry Schwartz is not expected to issue his decision for at least four weeks.

The trial, which started Feb. 10, pitted two entities that had once been united: the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado and Grace Church & St. Stephen's, which broke its affiliation with the Episcopal Church in 2007, but has continued to worship in the building. The group that stayed with the Episcopal Church, Grace & St. Stephen's Episcopal, has been worshiping in another downtown building.

The breakaway parish - the plaintiff in the case - maintains that it is a separate corporation from the diocese and therefore has legal rights to the property.

The diocese argues that Grace Church is subject to Episcopal law and legal precedent that gives title of the property to the diocese.

In closing remarks in a packed courtroom Wednesday Grace Church & St. Stephen's attorney Gregory Walta characterized the church as an independent corporation since 1973 that bought and sold property without approval from the diocese. Grace's Articles of Incorporation, moreover, make no mention of the diocese or the Episcopal Church, further evidence that it is an independent entity, Walta said.

Yet the diocese expects Grace parish to "give up the property it fought and bled for to some national corporation," Walta said.

Diocese attorney Martin Nussbaum, meanwhile, spoke of the "symphony of vows and affirmations" Grace Church has made to the diocese for decades, suggesting a deeper relationship between the entities than the breakaway congregation has acknowledged.

Nussbaum also spoke of the important precedent of a 1986 church property case, in which the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Episcopal diocese when one of its churches tried to keep its property after leaving the national church.

Walta, however, distinguished the cases, saying that the church in the high-court ruling was "like the kid who never leaves home" ?? firmly ensconced within the national body - while Grace Church was the "exact opposite." Independence "was part of the DNA of this parish," Walta said.

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