Eleven parishes that broke away from the Episcopal Church in Virginia have won another legal round. This case probably won’t have major repercussions outside of Virginia however. Here’s why. Virginia has a statute that allows the majority of a congregation to keep the property whenever there is a “division” within a denomination. A division within a congregation is not enough, if I understand it correctly. It must be a division within a national body.
The defection — or attempted defection — of the dioceses of Pittsburgh, Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin are a tremendous boon for the Virginia parishes, because it bolsters their claim that there has been a “division” within the national body, not just within the Virginia diocese. Now, the lawyers will argue about whether the Virginia Statute violates Episcopalians’ constitutional rights by “preventing the free exercise” of Episcopal religion. But this is a two-edged sword. Either way they rule, arguably, they’re preventing somebody’s free exercise of religion.
Plus, this case will raise interesting questions about state sovereignty. If this stays within Virginia courts, that’s good news for the breakaway parishes. Things become somewhat dicier, perhaps, if federal courts intervene.
Some lawmaker, probably long dead and forgotten, did these breakaway parishes a tremendous favor by getting this legislation through the Virginia legislature.
Anglican District of Virginia Wins Church Property Case
By the Anglican District of Virginia
FAIRFAX, Va. (December 19, 2008) – The judge presiding in the church property trial between the Episcopal Church and eleven former congregations, now affiliated with the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), ruled in the congregations’ favor today. The final rulings in this case concerned whether four parcels of property owned by the Anglican congregations were covered by the congregations’ Division petitions.
“We welcome these final, favorable rulings in this case. This has been a long process and we are grateful that the court has agreed with us,” said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of ADV. “It is gratifying to see the court recognize that the true owner of The Historic Falls Church is The Falls Church’s congregation, not the denomination, and that the building is protected by the Division Statute. The Falls Church has held and cared for this property for over 200 years.”
“We hope that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will realize that it is time to stop this legal battle. In these economic times, we should be focused on helping our communities and spreading the Gospel, not spending millions of dollars on ongoing legal battles. The money we have been forced to spend to keep our property from being forcibly taken away from us is money that could have been spent in more productive ways.
“While the judge ruled that issues surrounding The Falls Church Endowment Fund will be heard at a later date, ADV is confident that we will prevail on this last outstanding issue,” Oakes said.
On April 3, 2008, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows issued a landmark ruling that acknowledged a division within The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Virginia and the larger Anglican Communion. Judge Bellows affirmed that the Anglican congregations in Virginia could invoke the Virginia Division Statute (Virginia Code § 57-9) in their defense. The Virginia Division Statute states that majority rule should apply when a division in a denomination or diocese results in the disaffiliation of an organized group of congregations. On June 27, 2008, Judge Bellows issued a ruling that confirmed the constitutionality of Virginia Division Statute (Virginia Code § 57-9) under the First Amendment. On August 22, 2008, he issued a ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the Division Statute under the Contracts Clause of the Constitution.
“We hope that the Diocese will reconsider its previous promises to appeal. While we are prepared to continue to defend ourselves, we are ready to put this litigation behind us so we can focus our time, money and effort on the work of the Gospel,” Oakes concluded.
The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Diocese abruptly broke off settlement negotiations with the Anglican congregations in January 2007 and filed lawsuits against the Virginia churches, their ministers and their vestries. The decision of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese to redefine and reinterpret Scripture caused 11 Anglican churches in Virginia to sever their ties with TEC and the Virginia Diocese.
The Anglican District of Virginia (www.anglicandistrictofvirginia.org) is an association of Anglican congregations in Virginia. Its members are in full communion with constituent members of the Anglican Communion through its affiliation with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), a missionary branch of the Church of Nigeria and other Anglican Archbishops. ADV members are a part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, a community of 77 million people. ADV is dedicated to fulfilling! Christ’s Great Commission to make disciples while actively serving in three main capacities: International Ministries, Evangelism, and Strengthening Families and Community. ADV is currently comprised of 23 member congregations.