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Virginia judge sides with breakaway Episcopal churches

Decision confirms April ruling in favor of Falls Church et al., saying the 1867 law that would allow them to retain property is constitutional.

A Civil War-era law that lets Virginia churches keep their property when leaving a denomination where a "division" has occurred is constitutional, a county judge ruled Friday, June 27, siding with 11 former Episcopal parishes.

Fairfax County Judge Randy I. Bellows' ruling on the 1867 law stops short of awarding the property to the parishes, but it hands them a major legal win.

"It's a resounding victory and very broad," said Steffen Johnson, lead counsel for several of the congregations. "There are just a few loose ends to tie up."

The ruling could encourage the dozens of Episcopal parishes in similar court battles across the U.S., and shake the confidence of mainline Protestant denominations that fear losing churches and people to breakaway groups.

An October trial is scheduled to decide the remaining legal issues, which concern church deeds and property that predate the 1867 law.

The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia argued that the law infringes on their First Amendment ...

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