HARTFORD, Conn. --Six Episcopal parishes at the center of a dispute over gay clergy filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday alleging that their civil rights have been violated by Connecticut's bishop, the head of the U.S. Episcopal Church and others.Hmmm. Wide ranging indeed. And if you got your trial in the religious court would you recognize its decision if you disliked it? Or would you claim it too is an arm of the government?
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The plaintiffs in the lawsuit include the six parishes, their leadership and five of the six priests. The only priest not named is the Rev. Mark Hansen of St. John's Church in Bristol, whom Smith "inhibited," or suspended, in July. Cynthia Brust, a spokeswoman for the six priests, said she did not know why Hansen is not a plaintiff.
The lawsuit also names Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, alleging that the state has entangled itself in the dispute because state law requires Episcopal parishes to operate under the rules of the Connecticut diocese.
"The Episcopal Church has been given special status that other denominations are not given," Brust said. "In some ways, when Bishop Smith acts, he's basically representing the government." But Blumenthal said the state is not involved. "We have no idea what factual or legal basis there could be for naming the attorney general of the state," Blumenthal said. "Neither I nor my office has played any role whatsoever in this ongoing controversy which seems to be an internal religious dispute."
The wide-ranging 67-page lawsuit alleges that the six priests threatened with suspension were fraudulently charged with abandoning communion and denied due process because they were not tried in religious courts.
The plaintiffs also contend that the diocesan officials violated state law when they took over St. John's Church in July and appointed a priest to fill in for Hansen. Diocesan officials said Hansen was suspended for six months because he took an unauthorized sabbatical and St. John's had stopped making payments on a loan for its building. Hansen maintains that he notified Smith about his plans.
The lawsuit also names Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, head of the New York-based U.S. Episcopal Church, alleging that he provided Smith with resources and support and failed to act when the six priests asked him to intervene.
Actually, I am intrigued by the special status argument. My uninformed conjecture, though, is that the peculiar ownership and authority structure of the Episcopal Church is open for any denomination to adopt under state law. The Episcopal Church is not given special status. What seems to be the case is that - the recent California case being an exception - the ownership and authority structure of the Episcopal Church is enforceable.