Breakaway Episcopal Parishes Win First Case in Property Battle

Eleven congregations that broke away from The Episcopal Church celebrated a court ruling this past week that supported their efforts to keep church properties.

Judge Randy I. Bellows of Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled Thursday that the 11 churches could pursue their case under Virginia's "division statute," which grants property to departing congregations when there is division within the denomination.

Citing hundreds of churches across the country that are involved in disputes within The Episcopal Church, the judge wrote in his opinion letter that evidence of a division within the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the national body and the global Anglican Communion "is not only compelling, but overwhelming."

"The only way in which this Court could find a 'division' not to exist among the pertinent entities in this case is to define the term so narrowly and restrictively as to effectively define the term out of existence," Bellows wrote in his summary.

The judge concluded that the division statute applies in the case of the 11 congregations "walking apart" from the national body.

"We are pleased with this initial victory today," said Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, a conservative association of which the 11 churches are members. "We have maintained all along that The Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia had no legal right to our property because the Virginia Division Statute says that the majority of the church is entitled to its property when there is a division within the denomination. Our churches' own trustees hold title for the benefit of the congregations."

The Virginia Diocese, however, continues to maintain that the departure of the 11 congregations does not constitute a division.

The diocese sued the congregations after they overwhelmingly voted in 2006 to sever ties over what they contend is The Episcopal Church's departure from Christian orthodoxy and traditional Anglicanism. It is reportedly the largest lawsuit in the history of The Episcopal Church – the U.S. branch of Anglicanism – which had widened rifts in 2003 when it consecrated an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson.

In a statement following Thursday's ruling, the Diocese of Virginia said "it is simply wrong" to allow those who left The Episcopal Church to "continue to occupy Episcopal Church property while loyal Episcopalians are forced to worship elsewhere."

The diocese, which is arguing that the church properties were held in trust by the congregations for The Episcopal Church, is set to argue in May that the Virginia law on the division of property is unconstitutional, in part because it interferes with church laws governing property ownership, as reported by The New York Times.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, head of The Episcopal Church, said she was disappointed by the ruling and believes the court's conclusion that the division statute applies to the current situation "is incorrect."

Meanwhile, the breakaway congregations hope the court's decision will be respected.

"We urge our friends in the Diocese of Virginia and The Episcopal Church to respect the court's ruling and join with us to begin a process of healing," said Oakes of the Anglican District of Virginia. "These are also the wishes of the worldwide Anglican Communion, as prolonging this process – pitting Christian against Christian in court – does nothing to save one soul, strengthen one family, or help one person in need. Let us choose healing over litigation and peaceful co-existence over lawsuits, and let us devote all our resources to serving Christ and helping others around the world."