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Virginia court ruling blow for US Church: CEN 1.02.09 January 3, 2009

Posted by geoconger in Church of England Newspaper, Property Litigation, Virginia.
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A Virginia state court handed the Episcopal Church its fourth straight legal defeat last week, -permitting 11 congregations to secede and take their parish properties with them.

On Dec 19, Judge Randy Bellows held that a state law that permitted congregations to secede from their denominations with their properties when a schism has occurred, applied to the situation within the Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have “no legal right to our property” according to the court ruling, said a spokesman for the congregations, Jim Oaks. “We have maintained all along that our churches’ own trustees hold title for the benefit of these congregations. It’s also gratifying to see the judge recognize that the statute means what it says-it’s ‘conclusive’ of ownership.”

Litigation between the parishes, including two of the largest and wealthiest in the state, Truro Parish and The Falls Church began in Jan 2007 after negotiations collapsed. Last week’s ruling is the fourth legal defeat for the Episcopal Church. On April 3, Judge Bellows held that a schism, or division as defined by state law, had taken place within the Episcopal Church. He had also ruled that state law, not canon law, controlled the disposition of property, and rejected claims by the Episcopal Church that the state law as unconstitutional.

Bishop Martyn Minns of CANA said the decision was a “great victory for religious freedom.”
“While on paper this has been a battle about property, the division within our church has been caused by TEC’s decision to walk away from the teaching of the Bible and the unique role of Jesus Christ,” he said.

“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. The Bible is the authoritative word of God and is wholly relevant to all Christians today and for generations to come.”

US Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori said the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia would appeal the rulings. “We are not surprised — or discouraged — by the adverse aspects of today’s decision,” she said, adding that she was “optimistic” that she would prevail on appeal. “The decisions in this case have no relevance for the property litigation brought by dioceses with the support of the Episcopal Church before courts in other states,” she added.

Litigation between breakaway parishes and the dioceses, and breakaway dioceses and the national church is underway in several states. Property law in the United States differs from state to state, and while the Episcopal Church has lost the Virginia case at trial, it has prevailed everywhere but in California—whose Supreme Court is currently considering the matter.

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