Virginia judge rules against breakaway Episcopal parishes

January 12, 2012

Seven congregations that broke with the Episcopal Church in 2006 over
its liberal policies on homosexuality are not entitled to keep parish
property estimated to be worth millions, a Virginia judge has ruled.  

The
ruling by Fairfax County Judge Randy Bellows in January reverses a
decision he made in 2008—and hands a major victory to the Episcopal
Church and the Diocese of Virginia, which had fought hard to keep the
property.

One of the churches, the Falls Church, traces its roots
to colonial times and has counted among its members a former CIA
director, a onetime White House speechwriter, members of Congress and
numerous media mavens. Several of the congregations meet on valuable
real estate in Washington's booming Northern Virginia suburbs.

Bellows
said the property must now be returned to the Episcopal Church and the
Diocese of Virginia. In a statement, the congregations said they will
consider appealing the decision.

Since leaving the Episcopal
Church, the seven congregations have joined the Anglican Church in North
America, which is seeking recognition as an official branch of the
worldwide Anglican Communion.

In 2010, the Virginia Supreme Court
ruled that Bellows misapplied a state law that allows some breakaway
congregations to keep parish property and sent the case back for his
reconsideration.

On January 10, Bellows wrote that the parishes
had the right to break from the Episcopal Church but "had no right to
take these seven Episcopal churches with them."

Under Episcopal
Church law, property owned by any member congregation, parish or mission
is held in trust for the national denomination. Citing that provision,
secular courts have generally ruled against the dozens of breakaway
parishes that have split from the Episcopal Church since it elected an
openly gay bishop in 2003.  —RNS