RICHMOND, Feb. 1 -- A bill before the Virginia Senate has alarmed the Episcopal Church and other mainline Protestant denominations that are deeply torn over the ordination of gay ministers and the blessing of same-sex marriages because, they say, the measure would give local congregations unprecedented powers to break away from their national denominations.
Several major church groups on Tuesday urged lawmakers to reject the bill, which they said would entangle state government in church politics.
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The bill, now on the Senate floor, would allow congregants to vote to leave their denominations and keep their church buildings and land, unless a legally binding document such as a deed specified otherwise.
Many denominations have long had rules that prevent dissenting congregations from leaving the parent church and taking their land, buildings and other property with them. Since 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court and numerous other courts have upheld those rules in all but a few exceptional circumstances.
As a result, relatively few of the Episcopal congregations in Virginia and other states that vehemently object to the consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire have simply left the Episcopal Church USA. Instead, most have formed a network of disenchanted parishes that some call a church within a church, and they have tried to muster international pressure on the U.S. Episcopal hierarchy from the worldwide Anglican Communion.
Opponents of Senate Bill 1305, sponsored by Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), said it would be an unconstitutional intrusion of the government into that dispute.
"It puts us in the middle of that argument, and I think it's very inappropriate that we be there," said Sen. Martin E. Williams (R-Newport News), who said he plans to vote against the bill Wednesday.
Mims, a lawyer whose practice includes settling real estate matters on behalf of church groups, said his bill is designed to distance government from church disputes. Without it, he said, courts are forced to look to church doctrine to resolve arguments over congregational property.
"Those church members who have donated their money to build the church or expand the church or maintain it would probably be surprised to find that an authority hundreds of miles away could take that from them," he said. "If in fact that could happen, it needs to be clearly stated in the deed or trust agreement."
Mims said the bill was not meant to target the Episcopal denomination or get involved in its internecine conflict. Though the laity in his own Episcopal congregation in Ashburn has discussed the issue, Mims said, there have been no official moves to split with the church.
He said the congregation, which objected to New Hampshire's gay bishop and has joined the opposition Network of Anglican Communion Parishes, did not request that he introduce the bill.
The Rev. Clancy Nixon, vicar of Church of the Holy Spirit, Mims's congregation, said he supports the measure.
"They say it's about states interfering with internal church matters. I think that's baloney. It's all about property," Nixon said. "I think the bill is a good idea because it's a basic justice issue. In most cases, the local people bought the property, they paid for it and they maintain it, and now they're being told that in the event of a dispute, they can't keep it."
L. Martin Nussbaum, a Roman Catholic lawyer in Colorado who has served as general counsel to more than 30 religious institutions and denominations, called the Virginia bill "a rare example of a legislative attempt to rejigger the polity, or governance, of a church."
Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists and others -- as well as Episcopalians -- have raised questions about the bill. At a news conference Tuesday at Richmond's historic St. Paul's Episcopal Church, clergy lined up to oppose it.
Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer of the United Methodist Church said she is concerned it could promote schisms in churches by allowing a simple majority concerned about any doctrinal or social issue to vote to leave and take property.
Although Episcopal Church officials did not learn of the bill until the middle of last week, delegates to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia's annual convention in Reston over the weekend passed a resolution opposing it, said Russell V. Palmore, the chancellor, or lawyer, of the diocese.
"It came up on such short notice, it's been difficult to develop any type of coordinated effort, but I can tell you based on my conversations with other denominations that we are all against it," he said.
Cooperman reported from Washington.