YOU MIGHT expect that in its short legislative session the Virginia General Assembly would have more important business than intervening in internal arguments within the Episcopal Church over gay rights. But a bill pending in the state Senate would make it far easier for Episcopal congregations upset at the church's consecration of a gay bishop in New Hampshire to bolt from the national church yet keep their buildings and property. The bill, championed by Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), responds to a real problem: Mr. Mims argues persuasively that Virginia law on the subject is archaic. But his bill would make matters worse, not better. It should be voted down.
While some Episcopal congregations are angry about the church's toleration of gay clergy, they have not, by and large, left the church. One reason may be that their property is, while purchased with local money, held in trust for the national church. So if they leave, they leave their church behind physically as well as spiritually. Mr. Mims's bill would change that. It would give a congregation's property to the local congregation when it secedes from a church unless the property is specifically deeded to the national church or -- under an amendment he is proposing -- unless a trust agreement explicitly designates the national church as having its use. The bill is not explicitly directed at the Episcopalians, but it seems to respond directly to their current fight. And its result would be that conservative Virginia congregations could leave the Episcopal Church without becoming homeless.
Whether the Episcopal Church permits gay clergy is a matter for the church to decide, not the Virginia General Assembly. The First Amendment greatly restricts the power of government to interfere in questions of religious doctrine, and how a church allocates power and property between its central and regional authorities is a matter of canon law, not civil law. Consequently, courts have long deferred to the churches on such questions in the name of religious liberty. A bill that seeks to override churches' own rules on such matters is not likely to survive constitutional scrutiny -- nor should it. The General Assembly should not be taking sides in an argument among the faithful.