The Virginia Supreme Court ruled for the Episcopal Church on Thursday in a bitter, multimillion-dollar property dispute with a conservative congregation that had left the denomination amid controversies over homosexuality and other issues.
The panel affirmed a lower court’s decision that the 3,000-member congregation, which voted in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church, did not have the right to keep the sprawling property known as the Falls Church.
The Falls Church property is one of the country’s largest Episcopal churches and is a central landmark in downtown Falls Church.
The breakaway congregation, now called the Falls Church Anglican, has been worshiping in the Bishop O’Connell High School auditorium in Arlington County while it sought to overturn the Fairfax County Circuit Court decision from last year.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court affirmed that the property was rightly given to the mainline denomination but said some of the nearly $3 million in church coffers belongs to the Falls Church Anglican congregation.
It was not immediately clear whether there would be an appeal by either side. If there is not, this would end a property dispute that drew global attention starting in 2006 when more than a dozen Virginia congregations voted to leave the Episcopal Church but keep the church properties, arguing that the denomination had “left” by becoming more liberal on homosexuality, the role of women and how God views non-Christians.
Similar disputes have roiled Episcopal churches around the country and other parts of mainline Christianity, not only on questions of gay equality but also on more secular issues related to property rights. The Virginia dispute also became an issue in global Anglicanism — of which the Episcopal Church is part — when one of the breakaway leaders was disinvited to a global Anglican meeting.
Even after their votes, the conservative congregations have remained part of Anglicanism by being taken in by more like-minded Anglican bodies in Africa. They have since formed a U.S. wing that they hope will become a separate Anglican branch like the Episcopal Church.
After the Fairfax County Circuit Court decision, the Episcopal Church and its Virginia Diocese reached agreements with six other congregations involved in the court case to divvy up money and property. Only the Falls Church pursued an appeal.
George Ward, senior warden for the Falls Church Anglican, said that his community was disappointed by the ruling but that it is “thriving.” The Anglican group in the auditorium is far larger than the Episcopal group that won the sprawling property; about 200 Episcopalians come on a typical Sunday, said its rector, the Rev. John Ohmer.
The Rev. Shannon Johnston, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, said the diocese was “grateful.”
“This decision ensures that Episcopalians will have a home for years to come in Falls Church, and frees all of us, on both sides of this issue, to preach the Gospel and teach the faith unencumbered by this dispute,” he said in a statement.