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.