Virginia property trial opens

Matthew Barakat writing for AP has one of the better descriptions of the events of day 1 in the trial:

An obscure Virginia law from the Civil War era might play a deciding role in whether two of the Episcopal Church’s largest and most prominent congregations will be permitted to leave the flock amid a standoff over sexual morality and other theological issues.

A two-week trial began Tuesday in Fairfax County Circuit Court that will determine whether the 1867 law governs the dispute between 11 Virginia congregations that voted to leave the church and Episcopal leaders who reject the validity of those votes.

In opening statements Tuesday, CANA lawyer Steffen Johnson said history shows that the Virginia General Assembly envisioned exactly this type of dispute when it enacted the law. At the time, Protestant churches had been torn apart over slavery and abolitionism, and the splits were never amicable or formally recognized by both sides.

In court papers, diocesan lawyers argue that requiring a judge to rule on whether a “division” has occurred in the Episcopal Church sets up an unconstitutional intrusion into the church’s religious affairs. The 1867 law must be interpreted in light of the fact that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical organization that vests ultimate authority in its presiding bishop and national governing bodies rather than at the congregational level.

The trial is expected to last two weeks. No matter how Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows rules, the property dispute likely will remain unresolved.

If Bellows rules that the Virginia law applies, the diocese can challenge the voting procedures used by the congregations or the constitutionality of the 1867 law, arguing that religious freedom is infringed when the state interjects itself into disputes over canon law.

If he rules the law does not apply, the two sides could still dispute whether the individual congregation or the diocese are the ultimate owner of the property and whether a trust interest claimed by the Episcopal Church is valid.

In a statement Tuesday, the breakaway congregations urged the Episcopal diocese to either resume settlement talks or withdraw their lawsuit, which has resulted in millions of dollars in legal fees.

Read it here in the Charlottesville Daily Progress.

Ironically, in contrast to many other denominations, the Episcopal Church was not split as a result of the Civil War.

The Washington Post adds: “The trial, which is scheduled to go on until late next week, is actually the first of two trials, and no resolution in the land dispute will come until early next year at the earliest. The first trial is meant to determine whether the congregations “divided” under the legal meaning of the word. … Bellows’s ruling in the first trial will help whichever side he rules for in the second, representatives on both sides said. ”

See also The Living Church and this background article from yesterday’s Richmond Times Dispatch.

Past Posts