December 19, 2008
Virginia's Anglicans Win Another Court Victory
(Updated) Court awards church property to historic congregations. Appeal likely.
Update (April 19, 2013): The Virginia Supreme Court has ruled that The Falls Church, a "3,000-member congregation [that] voted in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church did not have the right to keep the sprawling property known as the Falls Church."
The ruling, which came yesterday, affirmed a lower court’s decision in favor of the denomination, but also "said some of the nearly $3 million in church coffers belongs to the Falls Church Anglican congregation."
CT previously reported on this case in 2010, when the Virginia Supreme Court overturned an earlier win for the congregation.
Early this week, I caught word that the judge in Virginia would issue an important ruling today in the church property dispute involving the Episcopal Diocese of Virgina, the national Episcopal Church, and break-away congregations organized into the Anglican District of Virginia.
Here's the press release, which I received about 15 minutes ago:
FAIRFAX, Va. (December 19, 2008) ? The judge presiding in the church property trial between the Episcopal Church and eleven former congregations, now affiliated with the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), ruled in the congregations' favor today. The final rulings in this case concerned whether four parcels of property owned by the Anglican congregations were covered by the congregations' Division petitions.
"We welcome these final, favorable rulings in this case. This has been a long process and we are grateful that the court has agreed with us," said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of ADV. "It is gratifying to see the court recognize that the true owner of The Historic Falls Church is The Falls Church's congregation, not the denomination, and that the building is protected by the Division Statute. The Falls Church has held and cared for this property for over 200 years."
"We hope that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will realize that it is time to stop this legal battle. In these economic times, we should be focused on helping our communities and spreading the Gospel, not spending millions of dollars on ongoing legal battles. The money we have been forced to spend to keep our property from being forcibly taken away from us is money that could have been spent in more productive ways.
"While the judge ruled that issues surrounding The Falls Church Endowment Fund will be heard at a later date, ADV is confident that we will prevail on this last outstanding issue," Oakes said.
On April 3, 2008, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows issued a landmark ruling that acknowledged a division within The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Virginia and the larger Anglican Communion. Judge Bellows affirmed that the Anglican congregations in Virginia could invoke the Virginia Division Statute (Virginia Code ? 57-9) in their defense. The Virginia Division Statute states that majority rule should apply when a division in a denomination or diocese results in the disaffiliation of an organized group of congregations. On June 27, 2008, Judge Bellows issued a ruling that confirmed the constitutionality of Virginia Division Statute (Virginia Code ? 57-9) under the First Amendment. On August 22, 2008, he issued a ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the Division Statute under the Contracts Clause of the Constitution.
"We hope that the Diocese will reconsider its previous promises to appeal. While we are prepared to continue to defend ourselves, we are ready to put this litigation behind us so we can focus our time, money and effort on the work of the Gospel," Oakes concluded.
The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Diocese abruptly broke off settlement negotiations with the Anglican congregations in January 2007 and filed lawsuits against the Virginia churches, their ministers and their vestries. The decision of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese to redefine and reinterpret Scripture caused 11 Anglican churches in Virginia to sever their ties with TEC and the Virginia Diocese.
For conservative Anglicans, this is a day to rejoice. It's an early Christmas present. But while one battle is won, the war (so to speak) seems far from over. It is widely expected that Episcopal church lawyers will file an appeal very soon.
Here's what Anglican Bishop Martyn Minns, from Truro Church and the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, had to say:
"The Court's decision is a great victory for religious freedom. It makes it clear that we cannot be forced to leave our churches and our foundational Christian beliefs because of the decision by the leadership of The Episcopal Church (TEC) to change the core components of our faith."
"While on paper this has been a battle about property, the division within our church has been caused by TEC's decision to walk away from the teaching of the Bible and the unique role of Jesus Christ. They are forging a prodigal path ? reinventing Christianity as they go ? which takes them away from the values and beliefs of the historical church here in the United States and the worldwide Anglican Communion as a whole.
"Our position has always been that we have a right to continue to hold dear the same things that our parents and most of the leaders of the Anglican Communion have always believed. The Bible is the authoritative word of God and is wholly relevant to all Christians today and for generations to come.
"We hope and pray that TEC will refrain from causing all of our congregations to spend more money on further appeals. The money could be used instead to provide more help to the least, the last, and the left out in our communities."
I'm no fan of posting press releases online, so click here for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia statement about the case.
The fight goes on. The bottom line is that TEC Bishop Lee will be filing an appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia.