Magazine article The Christian Century

Virqinia Judge Sides with Breakaway Churches

Magazine article The Christian Century

Virqinia Judge Sides with Breakaway Churches

Article excerpt

A CIVIL WAR--ERA law that lets Virginia churches keep their property when leaving a denomination where a "division" has occurred is constitutional, a county judge has ruled, siding with 11 former Episcopal parishes.

Fairfax County judge Randy I. Bellows's ruling on the 1867 law stops short of awarding the property to the parishes, but it hands them a major legal win.

"It's a resounding victory and very broad," said Steffen Johnson, lead counsel for several of the congregations. "There are just a few loose ends to tie up."

Though state laws on church properties vary, the June 27 ruling could give hope to the dozens of Episcopal parishes in similar court battles across the U.S. and shake the confidence of mainline Protestant denominations that fear losing churches and people to breakaway groups. Several other denominations have filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Episcopal diocese.

An October trial is scheduled to decide the remaining legal issues, which concern church deeds and property that predate the 1867 law. The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia argued that the law infringes on their First Amendment rights to practice religion without government interference. …

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