A judge on Wednesday tentatively rejected a motion by the Episcopal Church that would likely have meant victory in its nearly five-year church property battle with the breakaway Diocese of San Joaquin.
In a seven-page written ruling, however, Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Hamilton suggested the Episcopal Church may simply have failed to submit the documents necessary to prove its case.
The matter will be orally argued before Hamilton on March 13. If he affirms his tentative ruling, the Episcopal Church could appeal the ruling or the matter could move to a trial.
At stake is who owns property, such as bank accounts, the actual churches and a conference retreat center in Oakhurst. Is it the Episcopal Church and its Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin, or is it the breakaway Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin?
In his ruling, Hamilton wrote that the answer "according to California case law, depends on the interpretation of the governing documents" of the Anglican Diocese and the Episcopal Church.
But, he wrote, the church -- which was asking Hamilton to rule that the property belongs to the national body -- "failed to submit these necessary documents and have thus failed to meet their evidentiary burden."
Bishop Eric Menees of the Fresno-based Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin said he was happy with the ruling.
"From the very beginning we put this in God's hands and continue to do that and trust that we'll prevail in the sense of no matter what happens, if we win or lose in the courts, everything's been about being able to proclaim the word of God, the good news of Jesus Christ. It's not about the property."
He said the breakaway diocese continues to believe "we have the right and the ability to separate from the Episcopal Church, following the Episcopal Church's own rules and following the rules of the corporation laws of the state of California. We wouldn't have made this decision if we couldn't do that."
Episcopal Church officials declined to comment.
The schism dates to December 2007, when the Diocese of San Joaquin seceded from the U.S. Episcopal Church. A few months later, the church launched a legal battle seeking the property that is in the breakaway diocese's hands.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Adolfo Corona ruled that the matter was internal and not something for a court to decide, but the Fifth District Court of Appeal in Fresno sent the case back, and now Hamilton is hearing it.