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Civil war law queried: CEN 6.06.08 p 7. June 7, 2008

Posted by geoconger in Anglican Church of Canada, Church of England Newspaper, Colorado, Property Litigation, Virginia.

Read it all in The Church of England Newspaper.

Lawyers for the Episcopal Church were in court last week challenging the constitutionality of a Civil War era Virginia law that permits congregations to secede from their parent churches with their parish properties in the event of a denomination wide schism.

At a hearing on May 28, lawyers for the national church sought to overturn the 141 year old law, Virginia Statute 59-7, arguing was an intrusion by the state into the internal life of a religious group, and also discriminated against “hierarchical” churches.

In April, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled that a schism had occurred within the Episcopal Church under the terms of the Virginia law. However, he granted the Episcopal Church leave to appeal the legality of the law before the full case went to trial.

During the day long proceedings, lawyers for the national church argued that internal church rules on property stewardship could not be overturned by secular courts. However, Judge Bellows noted an inconsistency in the argument, asking why only 29 of the congregations of the Diocese of Virginia had titled their property in the name of the diocese, if church polity-as codified in 1979–mandated that all parish property be held by the diocese.

Lawyers for the diocese said that re-titling parish property would be needlessly upsetting. However, Virginia Solicitor General William Thro responded the “Episcopal Church could have changed their method for titling property but they chose not to.”

“That choice has consequences,” he observed, according to a report in the Washington Times, noting the church could not plead the benefit of the clergy as an exemption from civil laws on matters not touching upon doctrine. A final ruling is not expected until mid-summer.

Property litigation has also animated the Anglican Church of Canada. Last month judges in Ontario modified a lower court order giving physical custody of the property of breakaway congregations to the parishes—ordering the parishes to share their facilities with the diocese pending a final adjudication. While a judge in British Columbia ordered a breakaway parish to turn over its property to the diocese pending a final court ruling.

On May 13, a Colorado judge dismissed a motion by the Diocese of Colorado asking for a summary judgment against the state’s largest Episcopal Church, Grace and St Stephen’s of Colorado Springs.

The court held “neither party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law under summary judgment analysis” as the “material facts” of the case were “clearly in dispute.”

A spokesman for Grace Church applauded the ruling, noting the court had accepted the argument that civil property law prevailed over “sectarian arguments about ecclesiastical hierarchy.”

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