FAIRFAX, Va.: Anglican District of Virginia Wins Church Property Case
Judge Bellows Rules in Favor of CANA Parishes. Endowment Fund Will be Heard Later
By David W. Virtue
In what many will view as a landmark property decision, a Fairfax County Court Judge today ruled that eleven former Episcopal congregations now affiliated with the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) held title to their properties. The final rulings in the case concerned whether four parcels of property owned by the Anglican congregations are covered by the congregations' Division petitions.
Judge Randy I. Bellows who presided in the church property trial between the Episcopal Church and eleven former congregations said the congregations own their properties.
"We welcome these final, favorable rulings in this case. This has been a long process and we are grateful that the court has agreed with us," said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of ADV. "It is gratifying to see the court recognize that the true owner of The Historic Falls Church is The Falls Church's congregation, not the denomination, and that the building is protected by the Division Statute. The Falls Church has held and cared for this property for over 200 years."
"We hope that The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will realize that it is time to stop this legal battle. In these economic times, we should be focused on helping our communities and spreading the Gospel, not spending millions of dollars on ongoing legal battles. The money we have been forced to spend to keep our property from being forcibly taken away from us is money that could have been spent in more productive ways.
"While the judge ruled that issues surrounding The Falls Church Endowment Fund will be heard at a later date, ADV is confident that we will prevail on this last outstanding issue," Oakes stated.
On April 3, 2008, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows issued a landmark ruling that acknowledged a division within The Episcopal Church, the Diocese of Virginia and the larger Anglican Communion. Judge Bellows affirmed that the Anglican congregations in Virginia could invoke the Virginia Division Statute (Virginia Code § 57-9) in their defense. The Virginia Division Statute states that majority rule should apply when a division in a denomination or diocese results in the disaffiliation of an organized group of congregations. On June 27, 2008, Judge Bellows issued a ruling that confirmed the constitutionality of Virginia Division Statute (Virginia Code § 57-9) under the First Amendment. On August 22, 2008, he issued a ruling that upheld the constitutionality of the Division Statute under the Contracts Clause of the Constitution.
"We hope that the Diocese will reconsider its previous promises to appeal. While we are prepared to continue to defend ourselves, we are ready to put this litigation behind us so we can focus our time, money and effort on the work of the Gospel," Oakes concluded.
The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Diocese abruptly broke off settlement negotiations with the Anglican congregations in January 2007 and filed lawsuits against the Virginia churches, their ministers and their vestries. The decision of The Episcopal Church and the Diocese to redefine and reinterpret Scripture caused 11 Anglican churches in Virginia to sever their ties with TEC and the Virginia Diocese.
The judge's opinion and relevant filings to this final order are located at the following link:
The Anglican District of Virginia is an association of Anglican congregations in Virginia. ADV is currently comprised of 23 member congregations.
The DIOCESE OF VIRGINIA issued a statement saying they were grateful for the court's decision rejecting CANA's petitions for the Endowment Fund and said they had hired a constitutional expert Professor A.E. Dick Howard who has joined the diocesan legal team to assist in its appeal of this case to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
Howard served as the executive director of the Commission on Constitutional Revision, which revised the constitution of Virginia. Professor Howard has also served as counsel to the General Assembly of Virginia, according to a press release. "Despite the positive aspect of this ruling, the Diocese believes that serious constitutional issues remain.
In order to pursue those issues and restore constitutional protections for hierarchical churches in Virginia, the Diocese also announced today that "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."
The Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, Bishop of Virginia added, "Within the Episcopal Church, we may have theological disagreements, but those disagreements are ours to resolve according to the rules of our own governance." Bishop Lee further stated, "We call on the CANA congregation occupying The Falls Church property to drop their claim on the endowment fund, and thus allow The Falls Church Episcopal to use the endowment for desperately needed outreach in the Falls Church area, in line with the original purpose of the fund."
"We are grateful to have someone of Professor Howard's stature and talent on our team," said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop coadjutor of Virginia.
"There may be no other legal expert in Virginia who is as knowledgeable of the state constitution. We are preparing our appeal now and are confident in our position that this law cannot stand constitutional scrutiny. Together, we will explore every option to ensure that faithful Episcopalians in Virginia are guaranteed the right to worship as they please, without interference from the state."
The Diocese expects to file its appeal to the Supreme Court of Virginia shortly.
CANA Statement on VA Church Property Ruling
HERNDON, Va. (December 19, 2008) - The Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) Missionary Bishop Martyn Minns issued the following statement in response to the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruling in the church property trial between The Episcopal Church and eleven former congregations, now affiliated with the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV) and CANA.
"The Court's decision is a great victory for religious freedom. 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." "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. They are forging a prodigal path - reinventing Christianity as they go - which takes them away from the values and beliefs of the historical church here in the United States and the worldwide Anglican Communion as a whole.
"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.
"We hope and pray that TEC 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."
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