Biggest Property Fight in Christendom
In a Virginia court yesterday, a judge began a trial of certainly one of the biggest church property fights in American religious history.
The Episcopal Church, represented by the Diocese of Virginia and the national office in New York City, has filed suit against 11 congregations that have dis-affiliated with the denomination following the 2003 appointment of V. Gene Robinson, a "partnered homosexual," as bishop of the Diocese of New Hampshire.
Part of what amazes me is the lack of national media attention of this crucial case. It's important not only for the number of defendants, but also because it will test key concepts regarding how a state's judicial system applies civil law to matters normally relegated to the church.
The Washingon Times' Julia Duin provides a competent, newsy overview, reporting:
The case is informally referred to as "57-9" in many documents because the coming hearing is based on Virginia Code Section 57-9. This says when a diocese or a denomination experiences a "division," members of a congregation may determine by majority vote which side of the division to join, along with their property.
"This case is literally historic, because it's based on a statute enacted by the Virginia legislature during the Civil War," said Mary McReynolds, one of 24 lawyers involved on CANA's side of the dispute. "The Virginia division statute is unusual, and my understanding is there are not many situations in the country that allow this."
This morning, checking my Outlook inbox, I received the message, quoted below, from the conservative Anglican District of Virginia, the body of Anglicans now linked to CANA, an organization with direct oversight from the Anglican Province of Nigeria and Archbishop Akinola.
"Although we remain confident in our legal position, we call upon the leaders of both The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia to embrace the recommendation of the Primates and withdraw their lawsuits. We did not choose this path. Even today, our churches remain open to negotiating a reasonable solution with The Episcopal Church and the Diocese. The legal proceedings have been an unfortunate distraction from all the good work our churches are doing to advance the mission of Christ," said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, an association of Anglican congregations in Virginia and a part of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). All 11 churches named in the lawsuit are members of ADV.
"At the core of this case is that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia claim they have a ?trust' interest in the congregations' properties. But the Virginia courts have held time and again that denominations cannot claim an ?implied trust' in member congregations' property. The Episcopal Church even admitted in its complaint that it does not hold title to any of these eleven churches and that the churches' own trustees hold title for the benefit of the congregations.
"The Episcopal Church has continually walked away from the scriptural foundation of the Anglican Communion. When we objected, they chose intimidation through lawsuits as their solution. Regardless of the actions of The Episcopal Church, ADV members will continue to hold steadfast in their faith, based on the authority of Scripture. We continue to pray for The Episcopal Church and its leaders."
So regardless of who wins at the state level, it makes me wonder how long this case will be dragged through the courts. Could it end up before the US Supreme Court?