"The fact that the Virginia Supreme Court is going to hear an appeal of this case was expected," said Jim Oakes, Vice-Chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, of which the nine churches are members. "We continue to be confident in our legal position and in the rulings of the Fairfax County Circuit Court. These rulings, among other things, found the Virginia Division Statute constitutional."Note that Henry Burt uses the exact same phrase "unwarranted governmental interference" that Bishop Johnston was supposed to have written himself in his letter to the Diocese last week.
"While we are and have been 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," Jim Oakes also said.
"We are pleased that the Court has agreed to hear this important case regarding the ability of the Episcopal Church and other hierarchical churches to organize themselves according to their beliefs without unwarranted governmental interference," Henry Burt, a litigator who is Secretary of the Diocese of Virginia. "We welcome this next step to bringing exiled Episcopalians closer to returning to their church homes."
UPDATE: From The Washington Post:
A years-long, multi-million-dollar land battle between the Episcopal Church in Virginia and conservatives who broke away from the denomination is headed back to court.Read it all here.
The Virginia Supreme Court said today that it would hear an appeal by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (which includes primarily northern and eastern Virginia) and the national church, which got clobbered in Fairfax District Court last year.
The district court judge sided with nine conservative Virginia congregations whose members were fed up with the church's position on biblical literalism, gay clergy and gay marriage. Those conservative congregations voted in late 2006, early 2007 to leave the Episcopal Church, take the millions in real estate and join another, more like-minded branch of the Anglican Communion.
Other religious denominations, from Presbyterians to Conservative Judaism, are having similar disputes over human sexuality, and some have wound up in court battles over property rights. The legal issues are not exactly the same as in the Virginia case, but a few rulings this summer have mostly gone in favor of the denomination. One that didn't was last month in South Carolina, where a court ruled that a 1745 deed gave property control to the congregation (or, in this case, a majority of the congregation that wished to bolt).
The Virginia case also refers to a centuries-old code - a state statute called 57.9 that governs how church land is divided when there is a split in the congregation. It essentially says a majority vote of members is decisive.
The Episcopal Church argued that the congregations never legally "divided," but rather a conservative faction (albeit the majority of members of those congregations) chose to leave, joining Anglican branches in Africa. But the judge sided with the breakaway members and ruled there was a division, thus making 57.9 applicable - and the majority votes.
But the Episcopal denomination's argument is that it is NOT a democracy (like congregational groups, such as Baptists) and is instead hierarchical, which means church officials -- not individual congregations -- hold the land in trust. It says the state statute 57.9 is unconstitutional because it tells religious organizations how to govern their affairs, illegally mixing church and state.
The court today didn't immediately say when the appeal will be heard, but this means a reopening of a case that has been going on for nearly three years, when the Virginia congregations first voted to break away.
It's one of the most watched disputes of its kind in the country, primarily because so much money and land is at stake.