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Virginia diocese, Episcopal Church prevail with state Supreme Court

Court reverses lower court's property case judgment

[Episcopal News Service] The Supreme Court of Virginia on June 10 ruled in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in a church property dispute.

The text of the 32-page ruling is here.

A lower court had ruled that the nine breakaway congregations involved in the cases were entitled to retain all the parishes' real and personal property when they left the Episcopal Church and joined another denomination.

The Supreme Court held that although disagreements had caused "a division" within the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia, the breakaway congregations had affiliated with a church that was not a branch of either the Episcopal Church or the diocese. Such an affiliation is required, the court said, for Virginia's one-of-a-kind "Division Statute" (Section 57-9(A)) to apply.

The Supreme Court had heard arguments April 13 in two cases concerning church property that involved nine Episcopal parishes of the diocese which the majority of members and clergy left to form congregations of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), which the Anglican Province of Nigeria began in 2005. The departing members of those congregations then filed claims to parish property under the Division Statute.

The appeal by the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia was based on a number of grounds, including the claim that the statute did not apply to these congregations. The appeal also challenged the constitutionality of the lower court's application of the Division Statute, which dates to the U.S. Civil War and is triggered when there is a so-called "division" of a church or religious society. The trial court's rulings would have allowed former Episcopalians to claim Episcopal Church parish property as their own.

The Virginia diocese and the Episcopal Church have opposed the congregations' claims and asked the courts to declare that the property must be held and used for the mission of the Episcopal Church and the diocese.

The Supreme Court did not rule on the constitutionality question in its June 10 decision because, it said, it had concluded that the CANA congregations had not satisfied the requirements for asking for relief under the statute.

To do so, the court said, the congregations would have to have first shown that there had been a division with the church or religious society to which they belonged. Then the congregations had to show that they sought to affiliate with a branch "derived from that same church or religious society" and not one with "merely a shared tradition of faith."

While they proved there had been a division, Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. wrote for a unanimous court that "CANA clearly is not a branch of either TEC or the diocese."

The Supreme Court returned the cases to the lower court for further proceedings to resolve the property claims of the Episcopal Church and the diocese "under principles of real property and contract law."

"This decision brings us one important step closer to returning loyal Episcopalians, who have been extraordinarily faithful in disheartening and difficult circumstances, to their church homes," Virginia Bishop Shannon Johnston said shortly after the ruling. "We are extremely grateful for this opportunity to correct a grievous harm. The Episcopal Church has and will continue to stand by its people, its traditions and its legacy -- past and future. We look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible and bringing our faithful brothers and sisters back to their home churches."

Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the diocese, added that he hoped the leaders of breakaway congregations that have continued to occupy and control diocesan property, "will now provide access for the continuing Episcopal congregations to worship as Episcopalians at their home churches during this interim period."

Neva Rae Fox, Episcopal Church public affairs officer, said that "we and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia are gratified by the decision announced today by the Virginia Supreme Court. As we move forward, we remain focused on the important mission and ministry work in the Diocese of Virginia and throughout the wider Episcopal Church."
 
The Rev. Michael Pipkin, priest-in-charge of the Falls Church (Episcopal), said that the Virginia Supreme Court "has heard our cry for help and has responded justly." He noted that the congregation has been blocked from worshiping in its historic home since 2007, and conducts services in the loft of Falls Church Presbyterian Church, located across the street.

Jim Oakes, chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, which is the umbrella organization for the nine Anglican congregations, said that his organization is "disappointed" with the ruling and is considering its options.

"This is not the final chapter in this matter," he said. "The court's ruling simply involved one of our statutory defenses, and these properties are titled in the name of the congregations' trustees, not in the name of the diocese or the Episcopal Church. So we continue to be confident in our legal position as we move forward and will remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith."

Meanwhile, Johnston has invited members of the continuing congregations to join together on June 12 at St. George's Episcopal Church in Fredericksburg for "a time of prayer, information sharing and a discussion of next steps," according to an announcement on the diocesan website.

The case originally involved members of 11 congregations of the Virginia diocese, but the diocese and the Episcopal Church in September 2008 reached a legal settlement with two of the congregations, Potomac Falls Church in Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer Church in Chantilly, neither of which held any real property.

More information about the cases, including the Supreme Court filings, is available here.

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is a national correspondent for Episcopal News Service and editor of Episcopal News Monthly and Episcopal News Quarterly.

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