VIRGINIA: Diocese, Episcopal Church ask state Supreme Court to review property rulings

April 7, 2009

The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church each asked the state Supreme Court April 7 to review a Fairfax County Court judge's rulings in a series of church property lawsuits.

The diocese said in a news release that is appealing for the review on a number of grounds, including a challenge to the constitutionality of Virginia's one-of-a-kind "Division Statute" (Section 57-9(A)), which dates to the Civil War and is triggered when there is a so-called "division" of a church or religious society, and the rulings of the Circuit Court in applying the law.

The litigation involves nine Episcopal parishes of the diocese which the majority of members and clergy left to form congregations of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). The case originally involved members of 11 congregations of the Virginia diocese who left the Episcopal Church to form CANA congregations. The departing members of nine of those congregations then filed claims to parish property under the Division Statute.

The diocese and the Episcopal Church in September 2008 reached a legal settlement with two of the original 11 congregations, Potomac Falls Church in Potomac Falls and Christ the Redeemer Church in Chantilly, neither of which held any real property.

Judge Randy Bellows had previously ruled that the Division Statute applied to the case and overrode the Episcopal Church's and diocese's claims to the property. He also rejected the contention of the diocese and the Episcopal Church that his application of the law was unconstitutional.

Virginia and the Episcopal Church have opposed the congregations' claims and asked the courts to declare that the property must be held and used for the mission of the Episcopal Church and the diocese.

Bellows' final rulings in the litigation on December 19, 2008, cleared the way for the expected appeal. His letter opinion of that day is available here by clicking the last link on the bottom of the page. This Diocese of Virginia webpage includes all of the pre-appellate filings and rulings in the case.

The Supreme Court filing is posted here.

According to the diocese's news release, the key issues it wants the Supreme Court to review are:

  • Whether it is constitutional for a court to impose a congregational majority rule requirement on hierarchical churches, against their faith and traditions;
  • Whether "neutral principles" should be used for resolving property disputes between congregations and denominations; and
  • Whether property may be held in trust for hierarchical churches.

The Episcopal Church's petition asks whether the lower court properly interpreted the Division Statute to apply to this situation, in which a small minority of a general church's membership has chosen to leave the church and join a different, pre-existing denomination. The Episcopal Church argues that the statute was not intended to and does not so apply. Its petition also asks the Supreme Court to decide whether the statute is constitutional, if it is interpreted to override a church's own internal governance in that way.

The other Episcopal dioceses in Virginia are expected to file a brief in support of the petitions April 8, as will several other religious groups.

The diocese said in its news release that it has two goals in mind in asking for the review: "the restoration of Episcopal congregations to their church homes and the restoration of the long-cherished freedom in Virginia for churches to organize and govern themselves according to their beliefs."