SAVANNAH, Ga. — A Savannah congregation that split from the Episcopal Church in a dispute over homosexuality has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case over who owns the $3 million property of Georgia’s “Mother Church.”
The breakaway congregation has been fighting for years for ownership of Christ Church’s downtown Savannah sanctuary, built in 1840. The church was established by Georgia’s colonial founders in 1733.
The congregation’s leaders confirmed Friday they had appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court after exhausting their legal options at the state level. The breakaway group held onto the downtown Savannah property for more than four years after it left the Episcopal Church in 2007 for affirming its first gay bishop. A long court battle followed, with the Georgia Supreme Court ruling Nov. 21 that the church property rightfully belongs to the Episcopal Church under its governing hierarchy and bylaws.
It’s uncertain whether the nation’s highest court will hear the case. Leaders of the breakaway group say it warrants attention because there have been more than 50 similar church cases litigated in other states.
“You’ve had different rulings from different jurisdictions,” said John Albert, the board chairman for the breakaway congregation. “We’ve always felt like this was going to have to get settled at the Supreme Court level.”
The group returned the sanctuary on Johnson Square to the Episcopal diocese in December, but did not rule out further appeals. It has since been holding services and meetings at another Savannah church.
While the breakaway congregation has insisted the fight was mainly one of theological differences, saying it finds the denomination’s policies on homosexuality to be at odds with biblical teachings, the court arguments have focused tightly on matters of which group legally owned the title to the property.
The Rev. Frank Logue, the spokesman for the Georgia’s Episcopal diocese, pointed out that all three Georgia courts that heard the case ruled in favor of the diocese.
“We believe the U.S. Supreme Court, if it decides to take this up, will rule as the three Georgia courts did,” Logue said.
British Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as the 13th British colony in 1733, set aside the land for Christ Church on Johnson Square in his original plans for Savannah and attended its first worship service. It has long been known as the Mother Church of Georgia.
Aside from the Supreme Court filing, both groups are wrangling in Chatham County Superior Court over other issues including the breakaway congregation’s use of the name Christ Church Savannah. Logue said the two churches having similar names has caused confusion, with people sometimes going to the wrong location for weddings or funerals.
Albert and Logue said both sides are still trying to resolve those disputes out of court, despite the Episcopal Church having asked a Superior Court judge to intervene.