Michael Hamar

Virginia Supreme Court Rules Against Breakaway Anglicans

Filed By Michael Hamar | June 11, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Living
Tags: anti-gay bigotry, civil war, Episcopal Church, Peter Akinola, Virginia Supreme Court

In an unusual display of courage and decency, the Supreme Court of Virginia has reversed a lower court decision that would have allowed break away Episcopal parishes to abscond with the property of the Episcopal Church USA. The lower court had embarrassingly based its decision on a Virginia Civil War era statute that had been enacted for the specific purpose of allowing pro-slavery Baptist churches - i.e., those that became part of the Southern Baptist Convention - to seize and keep the property of the anti-slavery American Baptist Church.

Apparently, this ruling based on a racist law that ought to be repealed and removed from the Code of Virginia was too much for the usually spineless Supreme Court of Virginia.

The case has been remanded back to the lower court, so the battle will continue, but this ruing is a major blow against the breakaway Episcopal parishes which are aligning themselves under anti-gay extremist bishops in Africa - including Peter Akinola of Nigeria who is rumored to have ordered the massacre of 600 Muslim men, women and children. The Washington Post has details on this development. Here are some highlights:

Virginia's Supreme Court struck a blow to Anglican conservatives Thursday, ruling against nine congregations who split from the Episcopal Church after a series of doctrinal disputes that culminated with the 2003 installation of an openly gay bishop.

At issue are tens of millions of dollars in church property and symbolic momentum for dueling movements in the Anglican Communion.

The unanimous decision by the five-judge panel dismissing a lower court ruling that favored conservatives is not likely to end the dispute for the nine church properties. The panel simply found that a Civil War-era law governing how property is divided when churches split was wrongly applied to the current dispute. The panel sent the parties back to Fairfax County Circuit Court for a second, parallel case that focuses on who owns the properties. The case is expected to be more complex and messy.

Although the legal issues were particular to Virginia, the case has been closely watched by Anglicans worldwide and other faith groups battling over how to interpret Scripture. The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of Anglicanism, has been at odds for decades over everything from the ordination of women to the concept of salvation to more recent disputes about the rights of gays and lesbians to become clergy and marry. Conservatives' push to separate revved up after church leaders voted in 2003 to ordain Gene Robinson, an openly gay New Hampshire priest, as bishop.

Like the Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church structure vests title to all church properties in the diocese as opposed to ever changing congregations. To allow the breakaway parishes to steal the diocese property would in effect place the courts in a position of tampering with internal church governance - something all denominations should be against.


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Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | June 11, 2010 2:30 PM

"To allow the breakaway parishes to steal the diocese property would in effect place the courts in a position of tampering with internal church governance - something all denominations should be against."

While the heiarchical holding of property in this manner has its advantages, for the Roman Catholic Church it's also meant the inability to exempt parish property from judgements in the case of clerical abuse lawsuits.

What serves the cause of justice in one situation can work against it in another.

Rick Sours | June 11, 2010 4:17 PM

This clearly involved possible financial gain. Both Truro Church in Fairfax, Virginia and The Falls Church (in Falls Church, Virginia) sit on some of the most valuable real estate in Northern Virginia.

Treat these churches like a business, because that's what they are.

If the local manager of a Burger King wanted to change the menu to an Italian restaurant, and corporate said no (obviously), then she couldn't just declare her Burger King independent and change the menu.

I don't see the difference when it comes to churches.

Well, it depends on how the relationship between the local restaurant and the Burger King corporation is structured. If the store's wholly owned by Burger King you're right - but if it's a franchise relationship, the local owner has every right to break it off and change the menu.

That actually makes a great analogy though, because some churches (like the Episcopal Church here) have centralized ownership, while others such as the SBC are more franchise-like.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | June 12, 2010 10:13 AM

"I don't see the difference when it comes to churches."

One significant difference of a sort relates to First Amendment considerations. While judges comfortabley weigh evidence and consider interpretational arguments concerning a variety of things including whether or not Pizza Italiano is still just a minor variation of a Burger King Whopper with Cheese (or maybe without, they get a lot more antsy when sectarian doctrinal issues are involved. When the issue becomes "Has this congregation faithfully followed the core teachings of Jesus Christ", they generally prefer to run to the nearest MacDonald's (or Pizza Hut) to avoid anything approaching excessive entanglement with religion.

And for good reason: When the government wades into makling decisions based on theological considerations, all but the most hardened evangelical Christionist want not part of the process.

But the latter remain perfectly happy to uphold things like Proposition 8 on grounds that it reflects God's will.

Don Sherfick Don Sherfick | June 12, 2010 10:14 AM

"I don't see the difference when it comes to churches."

One significant difference of a sort relates to First Amendment considerations. While judges comfortabley weigh evidence and consider interpretational arguments concerning a variety of things including whether or not Pizza Italiano is still just a minor variation of a Burger King Whopper with Cheese (or maybe without, they get a lot more antsy when sectarian doctrinal issues are involved. When the issue becomes "Has this congregation faithfully followed the core teachings of Jesus Christ", they generally prefer to run to the nearest MacDonald's (or Pizza Hut) to avoid anything approaching excessive entanglement with religion.

And for good reason: When the government wades into makling decisions based on theological considerations, all but the most hardened evangelical Christionist want not part of the process.

But the latter remain perfectly happy to uphold things like Proposition 8 on grounds that it reflects God's will.

twinkie1cat | June 14, 2010 9:54 PM

This should be very good. If the splinter groups want to break away they can go, but they can't take their buildings with them. This very issue is why Southern Baptist churches are owned by the congregation and why the Convention itself actually has only the power the individual churches allow it to assume. Unfortunately, in the last 20 years of so, they have done alot of it.