The 90-minute session before a packed courtroom of 140 onlookers, plus more outside, appealed a Fairfax Circuit Court verdict that awarded about $30 million worth of historic property to the 11 churches that broke away from the diocese three years ago.
Five justices — three others had recused themselves from the case — grilled lawyers about the meaning and constitutionality of the state's division statute. The 1867 law allowed congregations — many of which had differed with their denominations over slavery — to leave with their property.
The justices at one point reduced the lead lawyer for the denomination to a stammer and made her opponent waste valuable minutes explaining the nature of the 77-million-member Anglican Communion, the parent body of the Episcopal Church.
The first lawyer, Heather Anderson, representing the Episcopal Church, was in the midst of explaining that the division statute did not apply to the 11 churches because the denomination had not experienced a "division" over the 2003 consecration of an openly gay Episcopal bishop: V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. A second gay bishop, Mary Glasspool of Baltimore, will be consecrated May 15 in the Diocese of Los Angeles.
Instead, she said, the churches who left were merely a mission of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, which had set up a Convocation of Anglican Churches in North America (CANA) to shelter them.
One of the justices pointed out that the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and former Virginia Bishop Peter Lee had discussed CANA's existence at length, meaning that CANA had some stature in worldwide Anglicanism. Ms. Anderson dismissed this as "like-minded church leaders coming together for consultation."
"Are they a branch then?" the justice asked.
When Ms. Anderson dodged the question, Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. demanded she respond.
"I don't have an answer," she said.
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