Trial Begins in Clash Over Va. Church Property

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tens of millions of dollars of Virginia real estate are at stake in a trial that began yesterday in Fairfax County Circuit Court, where priests, members of bitterly divided churches and lawyers filled the pews. It is one of the largest property disputes in Episcopal Church history.

The trial comes almost a year after the majority of congregants in 15 traditional Episcopal churches voted to leave the national church because of disagreements about the nature of God and salvation and about whether gay men and lesbians should be fully accepted. Northern Virginia has since become one of the most active areas in the country for the conservative, breakaway movement, and clergy around the country are watching this trial to see what happens to Episcopalians who want to leave -- and take church properties with them.

The land issue is a manifestation of a larger debate within the Anglican Communion, of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch. Traditional Anglicans are frustrated with decades of what they see as watered-down Christianity, and the dispute threatens to split the Communion.

Although traditionalists are a minority in the United States -- members of the 15 Virginia breakaway churches represent about 7 percent of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia -- they dominate in large swaths of the developing world, including in Africa and Asia.

Only 11 of the original 15 congregations are involved in the litigation currently in court, including the grand, historic Truro Church in Fairfax City and The Falls Church in the city of Falls Church. Officials with the Virginia diocese said the property in dispute is worth at least $30 million.

The trial, which is scheduled to go on until late next week, is actually the first of two trials, and no resolution in the land dispute will come until early next year at the earliest.

The first trial is meant to determine whether the congregations "divided" under the legal meaning of the word. After the congregations voted, they filed court documents citing a Civil War-era part of Virginia code that allows congregations that have divided to vote on where they wish to affiliate. If the court approves the documents, according to the historic code, then the breakaway churches get the property.

After voting to leave, the 11 churches placed themselves within a Virginia-based branch of the Church of Nigeria -- another wing in the Communion.

The Virginia diocese is arguing that there was no division, but rather that individuals unhappy with the Episcopal Church chose to leave. The diocese and the national church, which are both parties in the case, say that the Episcopal Church is hierarchical and therefore a "division" can only happen if there is a vote of its governing body.

But those on the breakaway side say it was the Episcopal Church that "left" by letting stand the 2003 installation of a gay bishop in New Hampshire. The national church "has willfully torn the fabric of the communion at the deepest level," attorney Steffen N. Johnson said yesterday in his opening argument.

They called as witnesses two U.S. church historians to discuss how church disputes were settled at the time the law was passed.

Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows has said he will rule on this case next month. Regardless of how he rules, a second trial will be held on lawsuits brought by the diocese and national church against the breakaway churches. That action asks the Circuit Court to declare the diocese the rightful owner of all property. The suits also asked the court to force the breakaway congregations off the 11 properties, which they have occupied since the votes in December and January.

Bellows's ruling in the first trial will help whichever side he rules for in the second, representatives on both sides said.

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