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Prospects Dim for Bill On Church Property

Va. Measure Evokes Gay Clergy Debate

By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 8, 2005; Page B01

RICHMOND, Feb. 7 -- The Virginia Senate on Monday effectively killed a bill that opponents said would put Virginia government in the middle of a dispute over the consecration of gay clergy in the Episcopal Church.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. William C. Mims (R-Loudoun), would have allowed local church congregations that vote to leave their denominations to keep their buildings and property, unless a legally binding document, such as a deed, specified otherwise.

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Most mainline denominations now prohibit dissenting congregations from leaving the fold and taking their property -- an arrangement that has been upheld by the Supreme Court in all but a few extraordinary cases since 1979.

Opponents said the measure would have allowed congregations roiled over gay clergy and gay marriage to more easily break away. They contended it targeted the Episcopal Church, which has been especially rent over the issues since clergy voted to consecrate a gay bishop in New Hampshire in 2003.

Because of existing treatment of property, however, few discontented congregations have actually left the Episcopal Church USA but instead have formed a network of dissenting churches within the denomination.

At Mims's suggestion, the Senate voted unanimously Monday to send Senate Bill 1305 back to the body's general laws committee for further study. Because the panel is not scheduled to meet again before the Senate must begin examining only legislation passed by the House of Delegates, the vote almost certainly ends the bill's prospects for the year.

Noting that Virginia's legislative session is one of the shortest in the nation, Mims told colleagues that, without more time, they were "incapable of handling legislation that is either exceptionally complex or about which there has been exceptional confusion."

But he maintained that the group will have to return to the matter next year to avoid finding current law struck down by courts.

Mims, a lawyer who specializes in church law, has said his bill was not intended to put the General Assembly in the middle of a touchy national debate. Instead, he said, it was meant to rectify what he felt was the constitutionally unsound notion that courts should look to church law when deciding how to dispose of property in congregational disputes.

"These archaic laws should be dealt with by the General Assembly rather than in other forums," he said on the floor.

In his statement, Mims did not refer to the dispute within the Episcopal Church or to his own congregation, Ashburn's Church of the Holy Spirit. That church has joined the Network of Anglican Communion Parishes, which opposes gay clergy.

Democrats agreed to Mims's motion to let the bill return to committee. First, however, several rose to express severe disagreement with its content.

"If there is one thing that we've learned from [this bill], it should be this: There are some things we should just stay away from," said Sen. R. Edward Houck (D-Spotsylvania).

Houck applauded Mims, however, for uniting Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. All opposed the bill.

The measure had cleared a Senate committee by a vote of 15 to 0. Then church groups mobilized and began an intense lobbying effort against the bill.

For the last week, clergy wearing the uniforms of their denominations gathered daily outside lawmakers' offices in the General Assembly Building.

The Rev. C. Doug Smith, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, which organized the effort, said clergy and citizens were encouraged to contact legislators of their own faiths.

"The net was cast wide. I don't know if that was the intention, but clearly there were a lot of faith communities that were impacted," Smith said.

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