Va. Episcopal Church Dispute Headed Back to Court

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 14, 2009; 5:14 PM

A years-long, multimillion-dollar land battle between the Episcopal Church in Virginia and conservatives who broke away from the denomination is headed back into court.

The Virginia Supreme Court said Wednesday that it would hear an appeal by the Episcopal diocese of Virginia and the national church, which lost in Fairfax Circuit Court last year.

A circuit court judge had sided with nine conservative Virginia congregations whose members were angry about the liberal approach the church takes toward several issues including whether the Bible can be read literally and whether gays and lesbians should be accorded the same rights as heterosexuals (in marriage and access to clerical positions, among other things). Conservative congregants voted to leave the Episcopal Church, take millions of dollars in real estate assets and join another, more like-minded branch of the Anglican Communion.

Religious denominations from Presbyterians to Conservative Jews are having similar disputes over human sexuality, and some have ended up in court pondering the question: Who gets to keep the property? The legal issues are not exactly the same as in the Virginia case, but a few rulings this summer have mostly gone in favor of the denomination. Last month in South Carolina, a court ruled that a 1745 deed gave property control to the congregation (as opposed to church officials).

The Virginia case also refers to a centuries-old code-- a Civil War-era statute called 57.9 -- that governs how church land is divided when there is a split in the congregation. It essentially says a majority vote of members rules.

The Episcopal Church argued that the congregations never legally "divided," but rather a conservative faction (albeit the majority of members of those congregations) chose to leave, joining Anglican branches in Africa. But the judge sided with the breakaway members and ruled there was a division, thus making 57.9 applicable and the majority votes binding.

But the Episcopal Church is arguing against democracy. The denomination's argument is that it is not a democracy and is instead hierarchical, which means church officials hold control of the land, not the congregation. It says the state statute 57.9 is unconstitutional because it tells religious organizations how to govern their affairs, illegally mixing church and state. The Virginia case is one of the most watched disputes of its kind in the country, primarily because so much money and land is at stake.

"This case is about liberty," the denomination's petition to the Supreme Court says. "It directly affects the constitutional right of churches to order their own affairs."

The court Wednesday didn't immediately say when the appeal will be heard.

Comment from the breakaway churches wasn't immediately available.

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