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Georgia court rules for Episcopal church in dispute

By David Beasley

ATLANTA (Reuters) - An historic church building in the city of Savannah belongs to the national Episcopal Church, not a breakaway congregation that left the national church following the naming of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire, the Georgia Supreme Court said on Monday.

Christ Church, the oldest Episcopal church in Georgia, was founded in 1733, when James Oglethorpe, an English general, designated the property on Bull Street as a place of worship, the state Supreme Court said.

When the national Episcopal Church named the Rev. Gene Robinson as its first openly gay bishop in 2003, the Savannah congregation voted to leave the national church and move under the leadership of an Anglican diocese in Uganda.

The breakaway congregation refused to give up the Savannah church building and property, valued at $3 million, prompting a lawsuit by the national church and the Georgia diocese.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruling on Monday upheld lower court rulings that the Savannah property belongs to the national church.

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution "allows (the local congregation) and its members to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans. But it does not allow them to take with them property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America," the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in a 6-1 vote.

Christ Church is considering whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, its lawyer, Jim Gardner, said in a statement.

"At its core this case is about fundamental property rights of individual congregations in hierarchical churches," Gardner said.

If the church loses access to the building during the appeal, it will hold services in another downtown Savannah church building, the statement added.

In 2003, the 2.1 million member Episcopal Church, the U.S. arm of global Anglicanism, triggered what many observers describe as an ongoing schism by consecrating Robinson as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese.

A few conservative dioceses have split from the U.S. church, and the 85-million member Anglican Communion continues to be roiled by the appointment of homosexuals and women to the hierarchy.

The U.S. Roman Catholic Church said last week it will establish a body in January to house disaffected members of the Episcopal Church, beginning with a few dozen ministers and at least two congregations seeking communion.

(Editing by Peter Bohan and Greg McCune)

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