By Michelle Boorstein and Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, April 5, 2008
A Fairfax County judge has given an initial victory to conservatives from 11 Virginia churches in their battle to keep tens of millions of dollars in buildings and land after breaking away from the Episcopal Church.
The decision is a first step in a multi-trial case and does not settle who gets the properties. But it is a boost to the breakaway churches and to a national movement that is battling the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, over what it believes to be an un-biblical liberal slant in the national church.
In the decision issued Thursday night, Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled the breakaway churches' votes to leave in late 2006 and early 2007 constituted a legal "division" in the Virginia diocese under a Civil War-era statute. The breakaway churches are primarily in Northern Virginia.
Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, which includes the breakaway congregations, said the group is "gratified" by the ruling. But, he added, "we understand that this is not the end. We've successfully jumped over the first hurdle."
About 200 congregations out of more than 7,000 in the Episcopal Church have broken away in the dispute, according to the Anglican Communion Network, a national umbrella group of conservative Episcopalians. Lawsuits also have been filed in California and Ohio over who gets to keep the properties there.
The decision means the Virginia breakaway congregations, which have affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, are legally divided from the Episcopal Church. CANA is essentially a U.S. outpost of the Anglican Church of Nigeria.
The diocese and the national church have said that the votes constituted a minority of diocese members and that the diocese, not congregants, owns the properties.
They also argue that the state law is unconstitutional because it lets the government tell a religious denomination how to govern its affairs.
Bellows agreed to hear arguments in May on whether the state law is constitutional. The court, he wrote, "does not decide today any issue related to the constitutionality" of the law.
William Etherington, a lawyer specializing in church-state law who is not involved in the case, said he expects that it will be decided on grounds of constitutionality and that it could have an effect that extends beyond the Episcopal Church.
"The constitutional issues cut across any denomination. It's something that's going to affect, certainly, any hierarchical church," he said yesterday.
"To me, that's where the rubber really meets the road here," he said. "It's a question of church autonomy."
The ongoing battle has taken its toll on the Virginia diocese. Although only 7 percent of its congregations have left the diocese, those churches account for 18 percent of its average Sunday attendance, according to court documents.
A fall trial has been scheduled to hear the diocese's broader lawsuit against the breakaway congregations. The lawsuit demands that the congregations vacate the properties and asks the court to affirm that the land and churches belong to the diocese.
The state statute says a legal division "shall be conclusive as to the title to and control of any property held in trust" for congregations. The diocese argues that the statute is unconstitutional.
Henry Burt, a spokesman for the diocese, said his side thinks ownership of church property is determined by other factors, including a denomination's laws, deeds and the history of how the property has been managed and controlled.
The case is being watched closely by other major denominations, including Methodist and Presbyterian, many of which also are facing battles between church leadership and restless conservative members who are unhappy with what they deem a liberal drift. Churches in other denominations that have broken away also are struggling in court over who owns the church property.