Saturday, October 11, 2008

Episcopal Church Under Jurisdiction of Tribal Court

Nine tribal congregations on the Pine Ridge Reservation have hired legal counsel to keep their Episcopal churches open and to clarify that the properties do not belong to TEC. Here is an excerpt from The Living Church report:

"With all due respect to your office, you would know all of [Christ Church’s] past and current history if you had found the time to be with us,” the letter concluded. “We would meet and converse while breaking bread together. Sadly and inexplicably, this has not yet occurred."

Lay leaders are preparing to file lawsuits in tribal court to stop the closings or, at least, retain ownership rights to the church properties. A meeting at St. Barnabas Church, Kyle, brought together “two or three people from every church, even the ones that are going to stay open," said Lydia Bear Killer, president of the vestry at the Church of the Inestimable Gift in Allen. "We all agreed we need to fight to save our churches."

The nine congregations slated for closure have jointly hired Marwin Smith, a lay legal advocate who is licensed to practice law on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Mr. Smith is currently preparing to file separate motions on behalf of each congregation in tribal court, which takes the place of state and federal courts on reservation lands for tribe members. He said they will seek permanent injunctions to stop the diocese from selling or disposing of the land on which the churches, and in many cases, cemeteries, are situated. He also said that temporary injunctions will be sought to stop the church closings.

"Then a group of us will go out and try to negotiate a settlement," he said. "No one really wants to go to court."

Mr. Smith says the land involved is "tribal trust land" and the Episcopal Church was never given ownership. When asked if the Diocese of South Dakota was under the jurisdiction of the tribal court, Smith replied affirmatively "because they have chosen to do business on the reservation."

The next step in the group's legal efforts will be a meeting on October 25 when legal filing fees and petitions will be collected.

Ms. Bear Killer said that even if the churches are officially closed by the diocese, the group will fight to retain ownership of the buildings and cemeteries. The Rev. Charles Montileaux, an Episcopal priest and associate judge of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Court, said he expects that services will go on in some of the churches even if the Episcopal Church officially pulls out.

"There will be worship and it will be Episcopalian, because that's who we are," he said. "We are Episcopalians and nothing can change that."

Read it all here.

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