Episcopal Church property dispute back in court

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2011 5:34 PM
Episcopal Church property dispute back in court

A years-long dispute between the Episcopal Church and several breakaway congregations over homosexuality and important tenets of Christian doctrine was back in a Virginia courtroom on Monday, where the fight will likely be decided on mundane aspects of real estate and contract law.

A Fairfax County judge heard opening statements in the case between the denomination and seven dissident congregations, who voted nearly five years ago to leave the Episcopal Church and realign as conservative branch of the worldwide Anglican church. The move was precipitated by the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop from New Hampshire. However, it also involved fundamental differences on Scriptural matters, including what some conservatives say is equivocation from Episcopal leadership on the divinity of Christ.

The Episcopal Church and its diocese in Virginia sued to gain control of property held by the breakaway congregations, which includes some of the denomination's most prominent and historic churches. Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church _ for which the city of Falls Church is named _ trace their roots back to Colonial times, when George Washington served as a vestryman.

In 2008, Fairfax County Circuit Judge Randy Bellows ruled in favor of the breakaway congregations under a rarely used Virginia law dating to the Civil War governing the breakup of churches. But the Virginia Supreme Court overturned Bellows' ruling and told him to decide the case "under principles of real property and contract law."

On Monday, more than a dozen lawyers representing various parties in the dispute returned to Bellows' courtroom for opening statements in what is expected to be a six-week bench trial. The various parties plan to introduce roughly 8,000 exhibits.

Lawyers for The Episcopal Church, which has roughly 2 million members in the U.S., said the relevant contract is the one between the Episcopal Church and its congregations. Individual congregations agree to respect church hierarchy, lawyer Mary Kostel said, and the Episcopal denomination voted in 1979 that all church property held by local congregations is done so in trust for the national denomination.

Congregations that don't like the rules are not free to simply leave when they disagree with church policy or doctrine, she said.

"Authority in the church flows down" from the top, Kostel said.

Gordon Coffee, lawyer for the seven breakaway congregations, urged the judge to look at the property deeds. All of the deeds convey ownership to trustees at the individual congregations _ none grants title to the larger denomination, Coffee said.

"When (denominations) want to subject property to their control, they know how to do it" on the deed itself, Coffee said. Catholic and Mormon churches, for instance, often list religious leaders like bishops on the deed, he said. Or conditions can be placed on the deed to require a congregation to adhere to church doctrine to maintain title to the property.

The legal dispute has been costly for both sides. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has lost congregations that collectively contributed $10.4 million directly to the diocese in the 20-year period before the dispute erupted.

And the breakaway congregations have spent millions of dollars in legal fees. Warren Thrasher, executive director at Truro, said the 1,200 members of that church alone have spent roughly $2 million in legal fees, raised through a legal defense fund kept separate from the rest of the church's ministry.

Thrasher said that while many church members wish the dispute could be settled, they contributed more than $500,000 earlier this year for the legal defense.

"We want to see this through," Thrasher said.