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 had abandoned the historic teaching of the worldwide Anglican Communion prompted the split.
In his 83-page opinion, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows upheld the 11 churches' argument that a division had occurred within the Anglican Communion, the Episcopal Church, and the diocese, and that the state law known as the Virginia Division Statue applied to the separation. The judge said evidence of a division at all three levels "is not only compelling, but overwhelming." The Episcopal Church and the diocese had argued that a legal division had not occurred, and that the statute was therefore non-applicable.
The 1867 statute says that a congregation is entitled to retain its property if the majority of its members vote to leave the parent denomination. Votes taken in 2006 and early 2007 within the 11 congregations in favor of leaving the Episcopal Church received large majorities. The votes followed a protocol established between DOV Bishop Peter Lee and departing churches for amicable settlement negotiations, but was later negated under pressure from the national church.
A separate hearing on the statute's constitutionality is scheduled for May 28.
While property law varies from state to state, Virginia property law does not recognize denominational trusts and uses "neutral principles" for determining a congregation's property rights when a division occurs within a diocese or denomination. The 11 congregations' individual trustees hold the deeds to the properties.
Both the ADV and Bishop Peter Lee of the Diocese of Virginia have reported spending approximately $2 million to date on legal costs. TEC has not divulged how much it is contributing to the lawsuit.
While both sides in the case have expressed sadness at the state of affairs, both have also indicated that they would ultimately appeal an adverse ruling. In its press release, the Diocese noted that the Court "has not yet ruled on the property issues in this matter". A separate trial on the property claims is scheduled for October. In the meantime, the release stated, those who have left TEC will "continue to occupy Episcopal Church property while loyal Episcopalians [will be] forced to worship elsewhere."
The case is one of several that TEC is currently litigating against breakaway congregations, according to a review of property litigation presented by David Booth Beers to the national denomination's executive council. Last October the Episcopal News Service cited Beers, TEC's Chancellor to the Presiding Bishop, as placing the total number of parishes in active litigation at 20 to 25. Beers also said lawsuits could be forthcoming in six other states "and a few other dioceses" some of which have since been initiated.
The initial ruling is expected to embolden other churches and dioceses across the country that have announced their intentions to break from the denomination.
"We all have the freedom to choose with whom we want to associate," said Martyn Minns, missionary bishop of CANA, in an earlier interview with CT. "A lot of people being intimidated by TEC think they don't have that freedom."
Minns said that an ultimate ruling in favor of the breakaway congregations would further encourage churches to leave. "I think we'll see a lot of churches saying, 'We don't want to stay with the Episcopal Church,'" he said.
In a statement announcing the ruling, Oakes urged TEC and the diocese to "respect the court's ruling and join with us to begin a process of healing. Let us choose healing over litigation and peaceful coexistence over lawsuits, and let us devote all our resources to serving Christ and helping others around the world."
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Bellows's opinion is available at the district court's website.
More articles on the widening division in the Anglican Communion are available in our full coverage area.