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A Virginia judge Thursday upheld key arguments of 11 Anglican churches seeking to keep their property and assets after leaving the Episcopal Church and its Virginia Diocese. The Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), a coalition comprised of defendants in the case, called the ruling an "initial victory" in one of the biggest church property battles in recent history.

"We have maintained all along that the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia had no legal right to our property because the Virginia Division Statute says that the majority of the church is entitled to its property when there is a division within the denomination," said ADV vice-chairman Jim Oakes.

The highly anticipated ruling is the first of several in the multi-stage trial that will decide whether the breakaway churches can keep their property and assets, which are worth an estimated $30 million to $40 million. Defendants include the historic 2,000-member Falls Church in the city of Falls Church, and the 1,300-member Truro Church in Fairfax — formerly two of the Episcopal Church's largest and wealthiest congregations.

Last year the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (DOV) and the national Episcopal Church (TEC) filed suit against the 11 breakaway churches and their clergy and vestries. They argued that the property belonged to the larger church hierarchy through an "implied trust" and that African congregations were "occupying Episcopal churches" after the congregations voted to break from the diocese and align themselves with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which is sponsored by the Church of Nigeria.

The 2003 consecration of New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, who is in a homosexual relationship, and the belief that TEC and the diocese ...

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