Denominations Join Episcopalian Diocese in Fight Over Church Property
Sixteen Protestant denominations and regional districts have joined a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in contesting a Reconstruction-era state law that governs church splits.
The post-Civil War splintering of Methodist and Presbyterian churches in 1867 prompted the Virginia law, which allows congregations to keep their property when seceding from a church or "religious society" that's dividing.
However, the United Methodist Church and the Presbyterian Church (USA), two of the largest U.S. mainline Protestant denominations, side with the Episcopal diocese in saying that the law is unconstitutional.
On Friday, May 16, a judge in Fairfax County, Va., ruled that the UMC, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Worldwide Church of God may participate in oral arguments May 28 to assess the law's constitutionality.
The amicus curiae brief is a sign of how closely Protestants are following the multimillion-dollar battle between the Episcopal Church and 11 conservative congregations that left to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, which is sponsored by the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
The Protestants' amicus brief says the law draws "civil courts into a theological thicket" and favors congregational-based denominations over hierarchical churches.
The Episcopal Church, the UMC, the PC(USA) and other denominations argue that local congregations hold propertyfrom the stained glass to bank accountsin trust for the denomination. Their hierarchical structures, they say in the amicus brief, are religiously based, and civil courts have no business resolving "fundamentally religious questions."
The General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, and Virginia-area districts of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Church of the Brethren have also joined the amicus brief.
Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell and lawyers for the Congregation of Anglicans in North America, the umbrella group of breakaway churches, will defend the law at oral arguments.
Jim Oakes, co-chair of the Anglican District of Virginia, which is part of CANA, said Protestants' concerns are not relevant to the lawsuit.
"It's almost like they're hyperventilating, saying, `This will destroy hierarchical churches,'" he said. "It will do nothing of the sort."
The property dispute is expected to take years to settle; Oakes said CANA has already paid $2 million in legal fees.
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See Christianity Today's earlier coverage of the Virginia lawsuit, "Big Win for Va.'s Breakaway Anglican Parishes in Property Fight."