Breaking: Virginia Supreme Court rules in favor of Diocese

Breaking News: The Falls Church News Press reports that the Virginia Supreme Court has upheld the ruling of the Fairfax Circuit Court conveying the property of the historic Falls Church to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and members of the congregation who did not defect from that church in 2006.

The Court ruled that the breakaway group can retain about $300,000 in funds it has raised since the split. Read the decision here.

An excerpt from the opinion :

[W]hen one considers the constitution and canons, specifically the adoption of the Dennis Canon, and the course of dealing between the parties, The Falls Church, TEC and the Diocese intended, agreed and expected that the property at issue would be held in trust by The Falls Church as trustee for the benefit of TEC and the Diocese. As such, we find that the fiduciary relationship required to impose a constructive trust has been shown to exist.

In short, the property belongs to the Diocese of Virginia, not to those who left the diocese claiming the property was theirs. This is a major victory.

Update: Here is today’s announcement from the Diocese of Virginia:

In a dispute over the ownership of The Falls Church, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled today in favor of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church. The decision affirms an earlier ruling returning Episcopalians to their church home at The Falls Church in Falls Church, Va. The Falls Church Anglican had sought to overturn the lower court’s ruling in favor of the Diocese. The court also remanded a portion of the case back to the Fairfax Circuit Court for a decision to determine a minor fractional difference in funds owed to the Diocese of Virginia.

“We are grateful that the Supreme Court of Virginia has once again affirmed the right of Episcopalians to worship in their spiritual home at The Falls Church Episcopal,” said the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, bishop of Virginia. “This decision ensures that Episcopalians will have a home for years to come in Falls Church, and frees all of us, on both sides of this issue, to preach the Gospel and teach the faith unencumbered by this dispute.”

The court also held that the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church have a trust interest in the property, in addition to the contractual and proprietary interests already found by the lower court. This validates the “Dennis Canon” in Virginia, and thus provides greater certainty regarding church property ownership.

“The Falls Church Episcopal has continued to grow and thrive throughout this difficult time,” said Edward W. Jones, secretary of the Diocese and chief of staff. “This ruling brings closure to a long but worthwhile struggle, and will allow the members of the Episcopal congregation to put the issue behind them and to focus their full energies on the ministries of the Church. We hope that The Falls Church Anglican will join us in recognizing this decision as a final chapter in the property dispute.”

Bishop Johnston added, “We pray that all those who have found spiritual sustenance at The Falls Church Episcopal and our other churches will continue to move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and love.”

Nearly a year ago, the Diocese settled the conflict over property with six other congregations. The Falls Church Episcopal and the other continuing and newly formed congregations, including Church of the Epiphany, Herndon; St. Margaret’s, Woodbridge; St. Paul’s, Haymarket; and St. Stephen’s, Heathsville, spent the past year growing their membership, supporting outreach and strengthening their church communities. Members of the Diocese have joined them in these efforts through Dayspring, a diocesan-wide initiative that is bringing a spirit of vision and rebirth to our shared ministries as a church.

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