In today’s orders list, the Texas Supreme Court chose a new case for argument later this year — a (rare) direct appeal, this one raising constitutional questions about how courts can decide property disputes that arise within a church.

The case is The Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, et al. v. The Episcopal Church, et al, No. 11-0265. You can read the jurisdictional statement or see other briefs and filings.

The dispute arose after the Forth Worth diocese of the Episcopal Church broke away from the national entity over doctrinal differences. The question was: Who owns the property held by the Fort Worth diocese?

After The Episcopal Church (“TEC”) began departing from traditional church practices and beliefs, both clergy and lay delegates of the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth (“the Diocese”) voted by a 4-to-1 margin to remove references to TEC from the Diocese’s Constitution. (28CR5962 (¶7)). Whether a diocese can withdraw from TEC is not a matter for the courts. But property ownership is, and the deeds, church constitutions, and state statutes show the Diocese is entitled to keep property that it has bought, built, and maintained for decades without TEC contributing a dime.

The lower court determined that it had no power to determine this property dispute without offending the First Amendment. By noting probable jurisdiction over this direct appeal, it will take up the underlying constitutional question of when courts can resolve property disputes that involve church entities.