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Federal judge dismisses Connecticut lawsuit

[Episcopal News Service]  A federal lawsuit filed against Connecticut Bishop Andrew D. Smith was dismissed by a judge in a ruling issued August 21.

The civil suit was filed last September by clergy and lay people from six parishes in Connecticut against Smith and others, including Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. The lawsuit accused them of depriving the six plaintiff parishes of their rights under the First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, and sought to have a state law that provided for corporate organization of the Episcopal Church declared unconstitutional.

In her ruling, U.S. District Judge Janet B. Arterton concluded that Smith acted under canon law, and that the claims by the plaintiffs lacked an essential element justifying a federal suit. Several other claims filed under Connecticut tort law were also dismissed by the federal judge.

"I am gratified by the decision of Judge Arterton that it is inappropriate to seek federal intervention in a matter of church life and governance," said Smith. "Non-interference by civil authorities in religious matters is a constitutional foundation of our nation and I trust that those members of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut who appealed to the courts will recognize the significance of this ruling and will seek to live in communion with their Bishop and this Church."

The plaintiff parishes included lay members from St. Paul's, Darien; Bishop Seabury, Groton; Christ Church, Watertown; Trinity, Bristol; Christ & the Epiphany, East Haven; and St. John's, Bristol, and clergy from five of those parishes.

The suit stemmed from a dispute between clergy and laity in the six parishes and Smith over his consent to the election of Gene Robinson as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire in 2003. The plaintiffs maintained that in doing so Smith strayed from "accepted Anglican theological belief and teaching regarding human sexuality and the ordination of priests and deacons and the consecration of bishops in the Episcopal Church."

The six parish rectors refused an offer of delegated Episcopal pastoral oversight (DEPO) unless the assigned bishop was permitted to oversee future succession of clergy and future candidates for ordination in the parishes, instead of the diocesan bishop—contrary to the provisions of DEPO. They also asked for release from the obligation to pay diocesan assessments.

The Connecticut Standing Committee recommended inhibition of the clergy of the six congregations in April 2005. But Smith only acted to remove the Rev. Mark H. Hansen, rector of St. John's Church in Bristol, on the grounds that he had "abandoned the communion" of the Episcopal Church.

The Bristol congregation elected a new vestry, which unanimously voted in October to withdraw the congregation from membership in the American Anglican Council and the Anglican Communion Network and declined to participate further in the lawsuit.

The full ruling can be found here. Further background on the case can be found here.

The six congregations also appealed to the Panel of Reference established by the Archbishop of Canterbury in response to a request of the Primates at Dromantine, Northern Ireland, in February 2005. The Archbishop of Canterbury withdrew the reference to the Panel in May 2006 until the civil case was resolved, citing the decision of the Panel not to consider references where civil cases are in process.