Fresno church sued to recover property

FRESNO — The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin on Thursday filed a lawsuit against St. Columba Church that seeks real estate and other assets from the Fresno parish, which was part of a 2007 breakaway movement from the national Episcopal Church.

The diocese has filed similar lawsuits against St. Francis Anglican Church in Turlock and St. Michael's Anglican Church in Ridgecrest, in eastern Kern County. Both parishes were part of the secession.

"If a person wants to leave (the Episcopal Church), that is their right under the First Amendment, but you don't take property that doesn't belong to you," said the Rev. Jerry Lamb, bishop of the diocese.

The lawsuit against St. Columba, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, and the lawsuits against the other individual parishes are part of a larger legal battle pitting the Episcopal Church against the breakaway Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin.

John-David Schofield, bishop of the rebel diocese, led 40 of its 47 parishes out of the Episcopal Church in December 2007, joining first the Anglican Church of the Southern Cone of South America and now the newly formed Anglican Church in North America.

The Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin and the national Episcopal Church have won a legal victory against the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin in an effort to recover what they say are property and other assets that belong to the Episcopal Church, not the breakaway diocese.

But St. Columba and a handful of other churches have incorporated individually — and separately — from the Anglican Diocese of San Joaquin, which has necessitated the separate lawsuits against the individual churches, said officials of the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin.

Besides St. Columba, its priest, the Rev. James Snell, as well as eight others on the church's board of directors are named in Thursday's lawsuit.

Snell said he was unaware of the lawsuit until he saw a news report and that he had not read it.