Virginia diocese gains support from other religious organizations in property lawsuit

May 14, 2008

 

Eight more religious denominations and judicatories, as well as the two other Episcopal dioceses in the state of Virginia, have asked the Fairfax County Court to let them join a friend-of-the-court brief recently filed by the United Methodist Church and several others that supports the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church in contending that the state's "division statute" is unconstitutional.

"All churches in Virginia are threatened by this statute, which discriminates against hierarchical churches in favor of congregational ones, in violation of their faith and the right of churches to structure and govern themselves based on their religious beliefs," the diocese said in a statement issued May 15. "All churches in Virginia must have the right to structure themselves according to their faith beliefs without the intrusion of the government."

The requests concern a case in which a number of Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) congregations have filed claims to property of parishes of the Virginia diocese under a portion of Virginia state law that is triggered when there is a so-called "division" of a church or religious society.

Fairfax County Judge Randy I. Bellows ruled April 3 that the CANA congregations, which include former members of parishes of the Diocese of Virginia, could file their claims to parish property under Section 57-9(A), the so-called "Division Statute" of the Code of Virginia. The court did not rule on the property issues themselves or whether the Virginia statute violates the Episcopal Church's or the diocese's First Amendment rights.

The ruling explicitly acknowledged that constitutional issues remain. Bellows will hear oral argument by counsel for the parties on those issues on May 28, specifically whether as interpreted by the trial court, Section 57-9(A):

 

  • violates the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution;
  • violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution; and \
  • violates the religious freedom provisions of the Virginia Constitution.

The Presiding Bishop's Office has said that at the May hearing, its lawyer would present "our contention that if the statute means what the Court has held, it plainly deprives the Episcopal Church and the Diocese, as well as all hierarchical churches, of their historic constitutional rights to structure their polity free from governmental interference and thus violates the First Amendment and cannot be enforced."

The following denominations or denominational judicatories have asked to join the amici curiae brief on May 12 and 15:

  • the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia;
  • the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia;
  • the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), by Clifton Kirkpatrick, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church;
  • the General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventists;
  • the National Capital Presbytery, by the Rev. Dr. G. Wilson Gunn, Jr., general presbyter;
  • the Presbytery of Eastern Virginia, by Elder Donald F. Bickhart, stated clerk;
  • the Virginia Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
  • the Metropolitan Washington D.C. Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
  • the Virginia District Board -- Church of the Brethren, Inc.; and
  • the Mid-Atlantic II Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.

They would join these denominations, congregations and officials responsible for the amici curiae brief filed on April 24:

  • the United Methodist Church;
  • the African Methodist Episcopal Church;
  • the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church;
  • the Worldwide Church of God;
  • the Rt. Rev. Charlene Kammerer, bishop of the Virginia Council of the United Methodist Church; and
  • W. Clark Williams, chancellor of the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

The diocese's May 15 statement notes that the Seventh Day Adventists are not subject to the statute in question. The motion asking permission to join the amicus curiae brief states, however, that the denomination recognizes “the ultimate and very real danger posed to all religious groups if the legislature is permitted to resolve property rights by reference to inherently religious criteria, much less to ‘defer’ to the rules of some religious groups but not others.”

In their motion asking to join the brief, the Episcopal dioceses of Southern and Southwestern Virginia say that “a statute that singles out the legally binding organizational documents and property arrangements of churches whose property is titled in trustees, and permits a court to invalidate those provisions on grounds not applicable to other types of religious or secular organizations or entities, cannot pass Constitutional muster.”

In its May 15 statement, the Diocese of Virginia said these expressions of support bolster the Diocese of Virginia’s and the Episcopal Church’s argument that "matters of faith, governance and doctrine are to be free from government interference."

To read the motions in their entirety, click here and then click on the button labeled "Property Dispute."

-- The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is Episcopal Life Media correspondent for Episcopal Church governance, structure, and trends, as well as news of the dioceses of Province II. She is based in Neptune, New Jersey, and New York City.