This 2007 file photo shows the interior of Christ Church of Savannah, founded in 1733, in Savannah, Ga. The Georgia Supreme Court voted six to one in a decision released Monday to uphold a lower court's October 2009 ruling confirming the national Episcopal Church's claim to historic Christ Church in Savannah. The dispute arose after members of the local congregation decided in 2007 to leave the Episcopal Church, which they said was straying from Biblical teachings. After the split, the Georgia diocese and the national church claimed ownership of the church building.
SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Georgia Supreme Court ruled Monday in a long-simmering property dispute over Georgia's oldest church, saying a congregation that broke away from the national Episcopal Church in a dispute four years ago must give back the church's $3 million property in the heart of downtown Savannah.
The breakaway group has continued using the sanctuary of Christ Church since 87 percent of its members voted to split from the Episcopal Church in 2007. The Savannah congregation was among dozens in the U.S. that left the denomination over the affirmation of its first openly gay bishop.
In a ruling that traced Christ Church's history from its founding in 1733 and examined both state law and church bylaws, the state's highest court said in a 6-1 decision that the Episcopal Church is the rightful owner of the property. Before the rift, the ruling said, the Savannah congregation had long pledged itself to the denomination's governing hierarchy, which states that all property belongs to the national church.
Christ Church members had a right "to leave the Episcopal Church and worship as they please, like all other Americans," Justice David Nahmias wrote in a 45-page opinion. "But it does not allow them to take with them the property that has for generations been accumulated and held by a constituent church of the Protestant Episcopal Church."
The head of the breakaway group, the Rev. Marc Robertson, has said his side is trying to make a stand for traditional Christian principles, not just win a debate over property rights. The congregation's attorney, Jim Gardner, said the group is weighing a possible appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Officials with the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia said Monday they look forward to moving back into the Christ Church property. But the Rev. Frank Logue, a top administrator under the diocese's bishop, said the church is willing to wait until it's certain the legal challenges have ended.
"We've made it clear consistently that we're going to let the courts act and then we're going to move," Logue said. "So we're sitting patiently."
Members of the breakaway congregation, meanwhile, insisted the battle was mainly one over theological differences.
The group said it was forced to leave the Episcopal Church because it finds the denomination's policies on homosexuality to be at odds with biblical teachings.
"The Episcopal Church has sought to exploit the judicial system in an attempt to coerce local congregations to accept its revisionist theology," said David Reeves, the congregation's board chairman.
The court's sole dissenter siding with the breakaway group was Superior Court Judge S. Phillip Brown, who heard the case in the absence of Justice George Carley, Brown wrote that the majority wrongly gave too much weight to the Episcopal Church's hierarchy and bylaws rather than state laws governing property rights — "an unjust result that is contrary to law in many ways."
Designed to resemble a Greek temple overlooking Johnson Square, Christ Church has long been known as the "Mother Church of Georgia." Gen. James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Georgia as the 13th British colony in 1733, set aside the land for Christ Church in his original plans for Savannah and attended its first worship service.
The roots of the legal dispute date back to the end of the Revolutionary War, when the Savannah church severed ties to the Church of England. Georgia lawmakers voted in 1789 to incorporate the church and granted it a title to the property.
The breakaway group argued that the 18th-century title trumps claims of ownership by the national Episcopal Church, which the Savannah congregation joined years later in 1823.
The state Supreme Court now joins two lower courts in siding with the Episcopal Church after it sued to reclaim the property.
The Rev. Scott A. Benhase, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, applauded the ruling in a statement Monday but also lamented that the dispute had been divisive for Christians.
"Whatever satisfaction we feel in prevailing in the courts is muted by the knowledge that this decision is painful for some of our brothers and sisters in Christ," Benhase said.