By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 28, 2008
A Fairfax County Circuit Court judge struck a blow yesterday to the Episcopal Church in its battle with a group of breakaway conservatives. The ruling, which will likely be appealed, heartens those who feel the mainline Protestant denomination has become too liberal, particularly on the issue of human sexuality.
Eleven Virginia congregations whose members voted to leave the Episcopal Church in late 2006 and early 2007 have remained in the church buildings since, arguing that a Civil War-era state law allows them to keep property worth tens of millions of dollars.
The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia argued that the state law is unconstitutional, that the government should not be involved in deciding when a religious organization has legally "divided" and that internal church laws and practices should govern such a spat.
But Judge Randy Bellows ruled in favor of the breakaway congregations, saying the state law is constitutional. The diocese could have used routine civil documents to protect its property, but did not, he said. The law has been around for 141 years and "did not parachute into this dispute from a clear blue sky," Bellows wrote.
The breakaway churches are part of a movement within the Anglican Communion -- of which the Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch -- that is disaffected by the U.S. church's acceptance of homosexuality. Its members have argued that by doing so, the American church has abandoned its scriptural roots.
"While there are some issues that remain to be resolved and we will continue to defend ourselves in court, we are hopeful that [the Episcopal Church] and the Diocese will put aside this expensive distraction," said a statement from the breakaway congregations ."While we disagree with their decision to walk apart from the worldwide Anglican Communion, we acknowledge their right to do so. We would hope that they would acknowledge our right to remain faithful to the tenants of faith that have given comfort to our forbearers. . . ."
Episcopal Church officials have said they would appeal if they lost, and a statement from the diocese yesterday said officials are exploring their options.
"The Diocese remains steadfast in its commitment to current and future generations of loyal Episcopalians and will continue to pursue every legal option available to ensure that they will be able to worship in the churches their Episcopal ancestors built," the statement said.
It was not immediately clear what happens next in the complex, two-track legal dispute. The conservatives brought the issue into court first, filing a petition activating the Virginia law, called 57-9. The diocese then filed a separate request for summary judgment, asking Bellows to demand that the conservatives leave the property. A trial is slated for the fall to determine who gets the property, and Bellows yesterday asked each side to file a brief in the next few weeks laying out how his ruling affects that proceeding.
Robert Tuttle, an expert on church-state law, said the "only way" for the Episcopal Church to win now is for 57-9 to be overturned by a higher court. Tuttle also serves as legal counsel for the regional branch of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which filed a brief in the case supporting the Diocese of Virginia.
The ruling does not end the strange, painful wait for members of the fractured congregations. Several split after the votes and meet in separate buildings while they await a final decision. Among those is the 170-member Falls Church Episcopal, which meets in a Presbyterian church building and includes the minority of members of the Falls Church that did not want to leave the U.S. branch.
"This is much bigger than the property," said Robin Fetsch, a member of the Falls Church for 27 years and now part of the group meeting in the Presbyterian space. "It's about who is true to the Episcopal faith, and the people I worship with now really are the ones. Those who believe in the grace of Jesus, but also that homosexuality is not a brokenness, not an illness."