Diocese Sues 11 Seceding Congregations Over Property Ownership

By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia filed lawsuits yesterday against 11 conservative congregations that voted to leave the U.S. church and are fighting to keep their parish properties and assets.

The Circuit Court lawsuits, almost all in Northern Virginia, ask the court to declare the diocese the rightful owner of all property, which is worth well into the tens of millions of dollars. The suits also ask the court to force the breakaway congregations off the 11 properties, which they have occupied since the votes in December and January.

The legal move was not unexpected because the two sides have met only once, in December, and have spoken publicly about finding no middle ground.

"This is just the next step in moving forward," said Patrick Getlein, spokesman for the diocese.

The dispute is part of a much broader, years-long conflict between a minority group of conservatives and the Episcopal Church, which is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion. The congregations think church leadership does not follow a proper reading of Scripture, particularly on the issue of homosexuality.

Attorneys for the congregations took the first step into court in December, when they filed post-vote reports required by state law when a church splits from a denomination and wishes to keep its property. The lawsuits filed yesterday are a separate action.

"This looks like a page from the usual Episcopal playbook," said Steffen Johnson, attorney for four of the breakaway churches. He said yesterday evening he had not yet seen the court filing.

Despite the legal back-and-forth, Getlein said yesterday, "the filing of these suits doesn't preclude any further discussions on the issues."

The congregations named in the lawsuits are: Christ the Redeemer, Centreville; Church of the Apostles, Fairfax; Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; Church of Our Saviour, Oatlands; Church of the Word, Gainesville; Potomac Falls Episcopal, Sterling; St. Margaret's, Woodbridge; St. Paul's, Haymarket; St. Stephen's, Heathsville; Truro, Fairfax City; and the Falls Church, Falls Church.

Also this week, a 51-year-old Annandale man was charged with felony vandalism in the spray-painting of graffiti at Truro Church, one of the two largest dissident congregations.

Parishioners said they saw a person spraying a reddish paint on the front doors of the church Jan. 13. They found "666" and two circles containing "X" marks painted on four doors.

Fairfax City police said they arrested Dwight Lawrence Chase on Friday.

Chase sent letters to local officials claiming a right to take possession of the church property and signed them "Lawrence Chase Supreme Priest of the Holy Order of Jesus," according to police.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company