“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 said.
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.
UPDATE: Here is Bishop Martyn Minns' statement:
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.
Robin Adams, Rector of Church of the Word Gainesville (who's property was one of the focuses of the shortened October trial) releases a statement below. Church of the Word was one of the churches signaled out by TEC and the Diocese of Virginia for the greatly reduced October trial. Today's ruling is a real victory for this wonderful parish. Robin,was serving as a member of the Diocese of Virginia's Executive Board until we voted to separate from The Episcopal Church. His parish was the last mission to make parish status before the votes. No missions have been established in the Diocese of Virginia since the votes were cast in December 2006 - unless we count the shadow congregations the diocese set up for the litigation. The Diocese of Virginia attempted to bring one of the shadow congregations into the court record last October in preparation for their expected appeal next month, but that attempt failed.
Robin Adams, as a member of the Executive Board, was kept informed on the development of the Protocol for Departing Parishes established by the Bishop of Virginia. Born and raised in Northern Ireland, Robin is well-aquainted with deep and lasting conflict. But in his statement he writes, "It is our desire to live at peace with our friends and former colleagues in the Diocese of Virginia and so we encourage their leadership to accept the judge’s ruling today and return to the spirit of the protocol by building working relationships with the CANA congregations and other Anglican bodies in Virginia." We add our Amen.
We received the judgment today from Fairfax Circuit Court, Judge Bellows presiding, that our three acre property in Gainesville, Virginia, falls under the reach of the § 57-9 Division statute.
This law was originally enacted to provide a fair and neutral principled way for the state to decide church property disputes brought before it. It is clear from this judgment that the congregation owns the property which it purchased only 15 years ago and in which it has invested over one million dollars in mortgage and maintenance since then.
COTW was part of a group of 20 or more congregations, some with property and some without, who were given permission by the Diocese of Virginia to enter into discernment process in the fall of 2006, resulting in a congregational vote in December 2006.
It is important to remember that the Diocese of Virginia set up the parameters for this discernment process in its ‘Protocol for departing congregations’. The protocol was agreed to by the Standing Committee and Executive Board of the Diocese, published on the Diocesan website and recommended to congregations. They provided study material for the discernment process, met with the vestry and sent a delegation to speak to the congregation before the vote to separate. They promised in the protocol to work with the congregations to resolve all differences amicably and so avoid the disgrace of Christians taking other Christians to court.
It is our desire to live at peace with our friends and former colleagues in the Diocese of Virginia and so we encourage their leadership to accept the judge’s ruling today and return to the spirit of the protocol by building working relationships with the CANA congregations and other Anglican bodies in Virginia.
Church of the Word is a part of CANA and, through CANA, a part of the emerging Anglican province in North America. The new province has already been accepted as a legitimate Anglican body by Primates representing a majority of Anglicans around the world.
We look forward to building the kingdom of God in our community and eventual expanding our facilities on this site or some other nearby property. Today’s ruling clarifies some issues for us and allows us to move forward with much needed development.
Ephesians 1:13 ‘You also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel’.
The Rev. Robin T. Adams, Rector
Church of the Word
This is in from the AP wire:
The final rulings came Friday from a Fairfax County judge who said the departing congregations are allowed under Virginia law to keep their church buildings and other property as they leave the Episcopal Church and realign under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops from Africa.
Several previous rulings had also gone in favor of the departing congregations. The diocese said it will appeal.
Eleven Virginia congregations were involved in the lawsuit, including two prominent congregations that trace their histories to George Washington — Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church.
The congregations voted to realign in late 2006. Since then, the rift in the Episcopal Church has grown, and entire dioceses have voted to leave the denomination. Similar property disputes are expected there as well.
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia argued it was the true owner of the church property and that the congregations' votes to leave the Episcopal Church were invalid.
The case was decided under a Civil War-era law unique to Virginia, which stated that when a division occurs within a particular denomination, a congregation can vote to decide with which branch it wishes to affiliate.
In earlier rulings, Circuit Judge Randy Bellows declared that a division had indeed occurred within the Episcopal Church, and that Virginia's law was constitutional.
It was widely anticipated that the departing congregations would prevail after those preliminary rulings were issued; Friday's rulings dealt largely with technical questions related to property deeds and the like.
The Episcopal Diocese contends that Virginia's law is unconstitutional because it requires a judge to wade into theological issues and thus violates First Amendment protections guaranteeing freedom of religion.
"Within the Episcopal Church, we may have theological disagreements, but those disagreements are ours to resolve according to the rules of our own governance," said the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, Episcopal bishop of Virginia.
Whether the decision in the Virginia case is indicative of what will happen nationally is doubtful. Even leaders in the departing congregations acknowledge that the judge's rulings turned on interpretation of a statute unique to Virginia.
Valerie Munson, assistant director of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, said property disputes tend to be fact-specific and state laws governing them vary greatly.
Still, she said lawyers will look closely at Bellows' various rulings for specific points that might be persuasive in cases across the country.
Read it all here.
One of the more intriguing headlines came from the public relations headquarters of The Episcopal Church in Manhattan. Their spin seems to sum up their entire view of what the last two years was all about to them in Virginia: "Court ruling clears way for property-litigation appeal." Ah, so that's what it's all about. It isn't about the people - and now it isn't even about the property. One wonders if they even bothered to read Judge Randy Bellows Letter of Opinion (which again perhaps tells us more than they intend for us to know). In these tough economic times, isn't there something else they could do instead of marching back into court?