Friday, December 19, 2008

Anglican District of Virginia Wins Church Property Case

FAIRFAX, Va. (December 19, 2008) – The judge presiding in the church property trial between the Episcopal Church and eleven former congregations, now affiliated with the Anglican District of Virginia (ADV), ruled in the congregations’ favor today. The final rulings in this case concerned whether four parcels of property owned by the Anglican congregations were covered by the congregations’ Division petitions.

“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?


Kevin said...

Two years after the votes were recorded, a nice Christmas present. I wonder what +Lee could have negotiated instead filing a law suit in a of "winner take all" approach.

Anonymous said...

I'm eager to read the actual ruling - it doesn't seem to be up on the ADV docs page yet . . .

BB, do you know if it covers everything -- including the property Christ the Redeemer gave to Truro?

Unknown said...

Yes, all the property - including the CtR Property. And Church of the Word and the historic Falls Church.


Anonymous said...

wow! that's fantastic!

". . . more than you can ask or imagine . . . " :)


Anonymous said...

praise the Lord!

Anonymous said...

Onward in mission - Blessings BB

Dave said...

Congratulations, BB. I left Christianity once I saw how Christians treated each other and sniped at each other, wondering how anyone could possibly think this was the way to salvation.

But you have your property, so you have that going for you, which is nice, I guess. And I'm free and happy. Everyone wins.

Use it wisely, and do good in the world.

Kevin said...

"I left Christianity once I saw how Christians treated each other and sniped at each other, wondering how anyone could possibly think this was the way to salvation."

Oh, trust me, it were not for Jesus the Christ, I'd never be a Christian (think about that one for a bit, it's fun at several angles).

One of my friends in seminary had a magnet on his fridge "Dear Lord, please protect me from your followers." It was next to a "Cardinal Ratzinger Fan Club" magnet to put in proper prospective.

This month was an odd one, BB & I talked off-line in which someone wanting to make a name 'stepped on' me, which in dealing with exposed levels of brokenness at local and even at bishop level.

Point blank, Christians suck, often the reason to follow Christ is despite His followers, not because of them (I'm probably no better). The only reason to be a Christian is believe in the Truth claims of Jesus, but then He commands fellowship, which brings our sin and brokenness in contact with others sin and brokenness and it often ends up a mess, I guess in the process we learn just how much we need Him.

Kevin said...

So far so good ... I've felt like throwing in the towel, yet again, the first of this month. Somehow, by grace, I'm still fighting the good fight I guess.

Prayers you find the Living Christ in the cloud of all of our sin & brokenness, which does mare His image.

Anonymous said...

"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."

Dead wrong as usual, bb. Two of the continuing congregations (St. Stephen's and The Falls Church) were made a part of the record. It probably won't matter much on appeal, but they're there.

Unknown said...

PiscoSours, what was it Jesus said to Peter right after Peter said that He is the Christ? You know, after Jesus said it was time to go to Jerusalem and Peter said, somewhat ironically - given how things turned out, "God forbid it." What did Jesus say?

It seemed to be a moment of victory as well - but it depended much on what constitutes real victory. There was victory, but not as Peter could have ever imagined.

Remember how my journey to discover the music of Bob Dylan began in the late fall of 2004 - it began with this song:

Shadows are falling and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep time is running away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

Well my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing
there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writing what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

Well, I've been to London and I've been to gay Paree
I've followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down on the bottom of a world full of lies
I ain't looking for nothing in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden seems more than I can bear
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm moving, but I'm standing still
Every nerve in my body is so vacant and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here
to get away from
Don't even hear a murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

We are not celebrating at the Cafe. We are grateful that the Lord has shown us mercy - for that is what this is. We are not entitled to anything, not the property, not our salvation. We are entitled to NOTHING. It is all by God's mercy, He has poured it over the legal team - as diverse a group of people who did not self-select their team, but it came together like the Fellowship of the Ring. They have had their own journeys along the way - and perhaps some day those stories will be told.

I continue to maintain that we should stop this litigation and just hold still. Hold still for years if we must - but hold still. Agree to the Protocol as a way to amicably separate until such a time as the toxicity of our dispute is dispelled or new crises force us to become allies and friends once again.

The idea of taking all this dispute into the courts was a tragic one. We were left at Bishop Lee's negotiating table, the Standstill torn up by the convener of the property negotiations himself. I still don't understand that. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

We can stand in judgment of our fellows in the human race when we ourselves are blinded by the log in our own eyes. This is a sad day indeed, for it reminds us yet again that schism is upon the Episcopal Church. No, I'm not rejoicing. I am relieved. I am awed by God's mercy, but I yet still grieve. It was not supposed to be like this. It's not dark yet, but it's getting there.

And I continue to pray that someone, somewhere, in the Diocese of Virginia will have the courage to stand up at Diocesan Council next month and say, enough.


Unknown said...

Anon, the Diocesan and TEC legal teams missed their filing deadlines. The shadows were left out of the final court record. If that is untrue, please let me know where in the court record they remain. I was advised today that the Diocesan and TEC legal teams missed their filing deadlines and lost their appeal to be included.


Anonymous said...

You're referring to the part of today's opinion rejecting a post-trial proffer regarding The Falls Church. You're ignoring everything else. For St. Stephen's it was by stipulation. For The Falls Church, in evidence proffered at trial.

Unknown said...

Anon, no I"m not. I'm talking about the deadlines imposed by the judge right after the October trial that the Diocese/TEC missed by two weeks. When the Diocese/TEC didn't file the motion in time, the CANA attorneys objected and that was that. It's not clear to me why the Diocese/TEC attorneys tarried for two weeks, but they missed the deadline.


Anonymous said...

bb, yes you are. See p.4-6 of today's opinion.

Unknown said...

Anon, what are you talking about then? As I understand it, the result is that it's stricken from the court record. The Virginia Supreme Court has historically shown little patience with attempts to go outside the official court record. What are you talking about that is in the official court record?


Anonymous said...

See the comment above -- stipulations (see here and here) and evidence proffered at the trial (see the transcript).