Virginia Court Will Hear Appeal in Episcopal Property Battle

By Michelle Boorstein A years-long, multi-million-dollar land battle between the Episcopal Church in Virginia and conservatives who broke away from … Continued

By Michelle Boorstein

A years-long, multi-million-dollar land battle between the Episcopal Church in Virginia and conservatives who broke away from the denomination is headed back to court.

The Virginia Supreme Court said today that it would hear an appeal by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (which includes primarily northern and eastern Virginia) and the national church, which got clobbered in Fairfax Circuit Court last year.

The Circuit Court judge sided with nine conservative Virginia congregations whose members were fed up with the church’s position on biblical literalism, gay clergy and gay marriage. Those conservative congregations voted in late 2006, early 2007 to leave the Episcopal Church, take the millions in real estate and join another, more like-minded branch of the Anglican Communion.

Other religious denominations, from Presbyterians to Conservative Judaism, are having similar disputes over human sexuality, and some have wound up in court battles over property rights. The legal issues are not exactly the same as in the Virginia case, but a few rulings this summer have mostly gone in favor of the denomination. One that didn’t was last month in South Carolina, where a court ruled that a 1745 deed gave property control to the congregation (or, in this case, a majority of the congregation that wished to bolt).

The Virginia case also refers to a centuries-old code – a state statute called 57.9 that governs how church land is divided when there is a split in the congregation. It essentially says a majority vote of members is decisive.

The Episcopal Church argued that the congregations never legally “divided,” but rather a conservative faction (albeit the majority of members of those congregations) chose to leave, joining Anglican branches in Africa. But the judge sided with the breakaway members and ruled there was a division, thus making 57.9 applicable – and the majority votes.

But the Episcopal denomination’s argument is that, according to its internal rules, congregants can’t just democratically vote their churches out of the denomination. Unlike Baptists, who are congregational, Episcopalians are hierarchical, which means church officials — not individual congregations — hold the land in trust. The denomination says state statute 57.9 is unconstitutional because it tells religious organizations how to govern their affairs, illegally mixing church and state.

The court today didn’t immediately say when the appeal will be heard, but this means a reopening of a case that has been going on for nearly three years, when the Virginia congregations first voted to break away.

One of the lawyers representing the churches that split off said the Supreme Court’s decision was expected. “We continue to be confident in our legal position and in the rulings of the Fairfax County Circuit Court,” said Scott Ward.

It’s one of the most watched disputes of its kind in the country, primarily because so much money and land is at stake.

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  • Rob-Roy

    What a waste. If only Peter Lee had the cajones to stand up to Ms Schori when she told him to cease amicable dialogue and sue. The diocese of Virginia has been devastated by this. Instead, they probably would have benefited monetarily in a negotiated settlement.

  • Yahweh

    I have no problem with the Episcopal Church ordiating gay Bishops, gay priests, gay sextons or having gay acolytes. Thus I have no differences with church polity in seleting Gene Robinson as a bisop. What does bother me is Robinson’s comment some years ago on NPR when he stated that God wanted him to be a bisop. Anybody who claims to know what God wants belongs in the same lunatic asylum with Jimmy Swaggart, Osama bin Laden, Jim Bakker, Billy Graham and the rest of the maniacs.God save us from religion!

  • norriehoyt

    Hey, breakaway parishes:Ever hear of THOU SHALT NOT STEAL?I’m told it has something to do with religion.

  • adrienne_najjar

    Religious people behaving badly. So much for brotherly love and all the rest of that BS.

  • weiwentg

    For the most part, the courts have ruled in favor of hierarchical churches (like the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians) when individual churches have tried to leave wholesale with the property. Virginia has a statute that, as I recall, effectively overrides the usual interpretations if a division occurs in the denomination. The Episcopal Church is likely to argue to the VA Supreme Court (and to the US Supreme Court if necessary) that the VA statute violates the First Amendment by interfering in internal church governance.It is worth noting that the secessionists have effectively stayed apart from the governance and funding of the national church for some time. Frankly, their hateful words made the entire church a less safe place to be in, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Episcopalians. The secessionists should have followed the rules of the denomination and not attempted to expropriate property, but the Episcopal Church does not lose much, aside from wasted legal fees, if it eventually loses the case.

  • dhmm6531

    From a Quaker’s viewpoint the secession of the Episcopal Church USA looks unfortunate. Instead of healing it breaks apart. Instead of welcoming all, as Jesus did, it chooses to exclude. At a time when the country is growing more tolerant and diverse, the breakaway church is a snapshot of the GOP: shrinking, intolerant, southern, all white. The breakaway church believes it is right, but this approach does not bring healing. Just as it fervently supported the Confederate side in the war against slavery, the Virginia church’s interpretation of scripture is subjective. It sees what it wants to see.

  • jdsher00

    It’s too bad that George Washington and George Mason’s church has been co-opted by hate groups whose religion is wholly obsessed with other people’s sexual practices. I wonder if the president who fought for freedom and the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (a model for the later U.S. Bill of Rights) would like to know that their altars have been desecrated by hate groups. It is sad to see people whose view of religion is limited to peeping-Tomming into other people’s bedrooms, and whose sanctimonious bigotries stain the altar with blood wrongly shed, pain wrongly inflicted, and injustice wrongly done. In the fullness of time, may those breakaway congregations find it in themselves to repent.

  • Bearbank

    The dispute is really about two things — real estate and individual power. It’s always about money and power.

  • nbriggs

    This dispute is NOT just about real estate and power – it is also about history. Some of these parishes had George Washington and George Mason as vestrymen and go back to before the Revolutionary War. It is a sad state of affairs.

  • Utahreb

    “….57.9 is unconstitutional because it tell religious organizations how to govern their affairs, illegally mixing church and state.”Don’t you love it? Churches are all for interfering in government, but when the shoe is on the other foot, they scream blue bloody murder! Talk about hypocrisy!!!!

  • jimward21

    So what is a fair way to divide up the real estate when there is a congregational split?

  • LeeH1

    I did not leave the Episcopal church, the church left me. I remain true to my vows and the Anglican traditions of the church, even as rebellious bishops and priests led their congregations away from the Anglican communion, common worship, and brought in strange doctrines and practices.I’m not sure the older Episcopal priests and bishops can still claim to be trustees if they no longer hold the same vows they made in the 1960s, under the traditional canons of the church. Break you vows; break your trust.

  • EmilyH1

    There are many legal issues here more subtle than portrayed as well as an argument made by CANA attys that the Va congregations now belonged to a different brach of the anglican communion, one headed by Bishop Akinola of Nigeria and not the one headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the legal end…my suppositions as a legal layman…1. Can legislate the validity of religious trusts. 2. Placing the question of the constitutionality of 57.9 aside for a moment and, for the sake of argument accepting that it is, what is the the meaning of 57.9?What does amaze me is that there seemed to be no concern at all raised in the press or blogs from conservatives that their attorneys were, in essence, arguing in a court of law that there had been a split. There were two branches of the AC and they now belonged to the one headed by +Akinola. For the legal argument to work, the branches had to be mutually exclusive. If so, did the congregations know that their actions had severed their relationship with Canterbury? Were they told that when in the discernment process of leaving?8:58 AM