Michael Heidt on lawsuits in Fort Worth

Earlier this year, The Bishop of Fort Worth, Jack Iker, told Forward in Faith U.K.’s National Assembly that he was the “most sued Anglican bishop in North America.” He wasn’t exaggerating; by the time Iker returned home to Texas a new lawsuit had arrived, levied against bishop Iker, personally, bringing the total number of legal actions against him and his diocese to four.

The proximate cause of this litigation dates back to November 2008, when The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, along with the Corporation of the diocese, which holds its property, left TEC following a majority vote at its annual convention. Magnanimous in victory, Iker’s diocese offered the small minority of dissenting parishes title to their property. But this wasn’t enough for TEC’s supporters – they didn’t just want their property, they wanted everyone else’s and went to court to get it, with a vengeance.

To do so, an entity had to be in place to litigate; this was set up in February 2009, at a special meeting presided over by TEC’s Presiding Bishop, Jefferts Schori. Calling itself ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth,’ the new ecclesial creation claimed to be Iker’s diocese and therefore the rightful owner of everything that pertained to its identity. After registering as ‘The Corporation of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’ at the Texas Secretary of State in Austin, the minority faction of liberal Episcopalians were ready to sue.

They did so, launching two lawsuits in April, 2009, one in the District Court of Tarrant County and the other in Hood County. Claiming to be ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’ and its Corporation, the plaintiffs petitioned the Tarrant County Court for the property and assets of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, along with sole rights to its seal and logo. The Hood County case was more limited, asking for money from a trust which had been left to St Andrew’s, Fort Worth. The plaintiffs again listed themselves as ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’, arguing that as St Andrew’s had left TEC, along with Iker’s diocese, that money now belonged to them, the ‘true’ Diocese of Fort Worth.

At this point a brief pause is in order. How could TEC justify its actions? Leaving aside the morality of taking other Christians to court, how is it possible for a minority who left a diocese to allege that they were, in fact, that diocese? It’s not the most intuitive of claims, especially given the proven, state-registered, continuous existence of the diocese in question, and the newly made nature of its challenger.

TEC’s answer is comparatively simple; dioceses that join TEC’s General Convention become, ultimately, TEC’s property. If a diocese then leaves, everything it has belongs to The Episcopal Church’s local supporters, who become that diocese, charging their lawyers to sue in the name of the ‘vacated’ jurisdiction. Regardless of there being no language in TEC’s Constitution or Canons that forbids a diocese to leave what it voluntarily joined, a more commonsense objection applies.

Organizations cannot sue themselves; IBM, for example, cannot sue itself for its own property. In the same way, ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’ and ‘The Corporation of The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’ cannot litigate against itself. But this is what appeared to be happening in Tarrant and Hood counties. Bishop Iker’s legal team took up the point, using Rule 12 of Texas state law to challenge the authority of TEC’s attorneys to represent the plaintiffs as listed on their original petitions, as ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’ and its Corporation.

The challenge was partially successful, with Judge Chupp of Tarrant County granting partial Rule 12 relief in September, 2009. TEC’s attorneys, Mr. Nelson and Ms. Wells, were not found to have the authority to represent bishop Iker’s diocese or corporation. However, the plaintiff’s original petition was not ordered to be changed to reflect this. Accordingly,

Iker’s attorneys appealed this at Fort Worth’s Appellate Court in November 2009, which ordered Judge Chupp to grant full relief in a ruling on June 25, 2010.

TEC’s supporters have subsequently amended their petition, which in its turn has been challenged by Iker’s attorneys so as to bring it into line with the Rule 12 decision. In the meanwhile, the Hood County case is in ‘abatement’ pending the resolution of litigation in Tarrant County; a date for a hearing has not been set.

Despite the Rule 12 setback, it appears that TEC and its adherents were operating on the old maxim of ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ Accordingly they initiated two more lawsuits, this time in federal court, against bishop Iker personally.

Filed in September and October 2010, in the name of ‘The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth’ and ‘All Saints’ Episcopal Church’, both suits tread over old ground. The September lawsuit attacks bishop Iker for using the seal and insignia of his diocese; this, it’s claimed, constitutes trademark infringement. The fourth suit claims that Iker has illegally recognized a parish in his diocese as ‘All Saints’, falsely using the title to the injury of its litigious owners.

Perhaps it is best to let the Diocese of Fort Worth and its Bishop comment on this for themselves.

“There can no longer be any doubt that this litigation is intended to harrass, intimidate, bankrupt, and divert the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, its Corporation, and its leadership – particularly Bishop Iker – from carrying out the mission of the Church.”

Of course Schori’s supporters in North Texas have a different point of view; they list news of the litigation they initiated on their website, under the title of ‘Holy Stewardship.’ How this can amount to spending hundreds of thousands of dollars, some would say a million and counting, on suing other Christians, is a point to be conjured with.

As with Tarrant and Hood Counties, dates for hearings at the federal courts have not been set. Bishop Iker’s attorneys predict that it will take several years for the various legal actions to be resolved. ND