Virginia Judge Affirms Parish Property Rights; Civil War-Era Law Cited

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), June 28, 2008 | Go to article overview

Virginia Judge Affirms Parish Property Rights; Civil War-Era Law Cited


Byline: Julia Duin, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

A Virginia circuit judge has handed a crucial victory to a group of 11 former Episcopal churches that left the Diocese of Virginia 18 months ago over issues of theology and the 2003 consecration of the denomination's first openly gay bishop.

In a 49-page ruling issued Friday morning, Judge Randy I. Bellows said a Civil War-era statute allowing the churches to split and keep their property is constitutional.

"Simply put, [the division statute] was constitutional in 1867 when it became the law of the commonwealth of Virginia and it remains constitutional in 2008," the judge wrote.

There is no violation of the U.S. Constitution either, he added, including the First Amendment guarantees against the establishment of religion and against prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

The statute is key to the case being made by the churches, which have said they are entitled to keep millions of dollars in land and assets because their denomination has undergone an irreparable "division."

The Episcopal Church and the diocese have sued, saying the statute does not apply in this case and that it is unconstitutional. The lawsuit, which is the largest church property case in the history of the Episcopal Church, is being closely watched across the country.

On April 3, Judge Bellows said the statute applied to the case - a ruling considered a victory for the conservatives.

During a May 28 hearing in Fairfax Circuit Court, the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia said the division statute is unconstitutional because it discriminates against hierarchical denominations by imposing democratic government on them - enabling a congregation to leave the church with its property upon a majority vote of that congregation.

The judge disagreed, saying the law doesn't single out the Episcopal Church or other churches with bishops such as Lutherans and Methodists.

Rather, he said, it was passed in light of splits within multiple denominations in the 19th century in the hopes of peacefully resolving property disputes. He added that it does not deal with the "thicket" of church doctrine.

"The Episcopal Church and the diocese's various arguments against the constitutionality of [the division statute] fail," Judge Bellows wrote. …

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