A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge struck a blow today to the Episcopal Church’s battle with a group of breakaway conservatives. The ruling, which likely will be appealed, heartens those who feel the mainline Protestant denomination has become too liberal, particularly on the issue of human sexuality.
Eleven Virginia congregations whose members voted to leave the Episcopal Church in late 2006 and early 2007 have remained in the church buildings since, arguing that a Civil War-era state law allows them to keep the property worth tens of millions of dollars.
The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia argued that the state law is unconstitutional, that the government should not be involved in deciding when a religious organization has legally “divided” and that internal church laws and practices should govern such a spat.
But Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled today in favor of the breakaway congregations, saying the diocese could have used routine civil documents to protect its property, but didn’t. The law has been around for 141 years and “did not parachute into this dispute from a clear blue sky,” Bellows wrote.
The breakaway churches are part of a movement within the Anglican Communion–of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch–that is disaffected by the U.S. church’s acceptance of homosexuality. The members of the breakaway congregations have argued that by doing so, the American church has abandoned its scriptural roots.
“While there are some issues that remain to be resolved and we will continue to defend ourselves in court, we are hopeful that [the Episcopal Church] and the Diocese will put aside this expensive distraction,” the breakaway churches said in a statement. “While we disagree with their decision to walk apart from the worldwide Anglican Communion, we acknowledge their right to do so. We would hope that they would acknowledge our right to remain faithful to the tenants of faith that have given comfort to our forbearers . . . “
Episcopal Church officials have said they would appeal if they lost, and a statement from the diocese today said officials were exploring their options.
“The Diocese remains steadfast in its commitment to current and future generations of loyal Episcopalians and will continue to pursue every legal option available to ensure that they will be able to worship in the churches their Episcopal ancestors built,” the statement said.
The dispute over the properties is running on two tracks. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to require the conservatives to leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall on the latter question. It wasn’t immediately clear how today’s ruling would affect the schedule for that trial.
Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the “only way” for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case on behalf of the Diocese of Virginia.