In a final ruling issued Friday, a Fairfax County judge allowed nearly a dozen conservative congregations that broke from The Episcopal Church to keep their church property.
"The Court's decision is a great victory for religious freedom," said the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, who leads the breakaway group Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). "It makes it clear that we cannot be forced to leave our churches and our foundational Christian beliefs because of the decision by the leadership of The Episcopal Church (TEC) to change the core components of our faith."
The long court battle began after 11 congregations in Virginia voted in December of 2006 and January the following year to sever ties with The Episcopal Church – the U.S. arm of Anglicanism – while staying in alignment with the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The breakaway Anglicans believe the U.S. church has abandoned Scripture and traditional Anglicanism.
The Episcopal Church had heightened controversy in 2003 when it consecrated the first openly gay bishop.
Since then, the U.S. church has been involved in several church property court battles as a minority of congregations have voted to leave. The case involving Virginia churches was the most prominent.
The judge said the departing congregations are allowed under Virginia law to leave and that they can keep their property, as reported by The Associated Press.
"Our position has always been that we have a right to continue to hold dear the same things that our parents and most of the leaders of the Anglican Communion have always believed," said Minns in a statement Friday. "The Bible is the authoritative word of God and is wholly relevant to all Christians today and for generations to come."
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, which filed the lawsuit with The Episcopal Church against the congregations, plans to appeal the rulings.
In a statement Friday, Virginia Diocese Bishop Peter James Lee said: "We continue to believe the Division Statute is a violation of the United States and Virginia constitutions because it intrudes into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other hierarchical churches to organize and govern themselves."
"Within the Episcopal Church, we may have theological disagreements, but those disagreements are ours to resolve according to the rules of our own governance," Lee added.
The breakaway churches had pursued their case under Virginia's "division statute," which grants property to departing congregations when there is division within the denomination.
While an appeal is expected, Minns still hopes The Episcopal Church will "refrain from causing all of our congregations to spend more money on further appeals."
"The money could be used instead to provide more help to the least, the last, and the left out in our communities," he said.