The mother of all lawsuits pitting Episcopalian against Anglican kicks off today in the red-brick confines of Fairfax County Circuit Court.
The case has amassed numerous court filings involving 11 churches, two dozen lawyers, 107 individuals, the 90,000-member Diocese of Virginia, the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church and the 18.5 million-member Anglican Province of Nigeria.
The Episcopal Church and its Virginia Diocese are suing 11 churches, their clergy and lay leaders for leaving the diocese last winter in order to join the Nigerian province. Since the 2003 consecration of the openly homosexual New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson, conservatives have been fleeing the denomination.
Some of the nation's top law firms are involved in the fight, including the 750-attorney firm Goodwin Procter. One of its partners, David Beers, is chancellor for the Episcopal Church. Hourly rates for partners at the firm go as high as $475, according to filings in a 2006 case in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
The defendants are having to pony up huge amounts as well. The Falls Church, oldest of the 11 churches, has announced it will have a special collection June 10 to defray $342,576 in unpaid legal expenses.
Virginia Theological Seminary historian Robert Prichard said that in terms of the number of individuals and fair-market value of the historic properties, this may be the Episcopal Church's largest lawsuit ever.
He declined to predict the winner of the dispute. "I've got better sense than that," he said.
Circuit Judge Randy Bellows, no stranger to high-profile cases, will preside. He's the former assistant U.S. attorney who was the lead prosecutor on the "American Taliban" case of John Walker Lindh, and the investigator called upon to examine how the FBI bungled its espionage probe of Taiwanese-American scientist Wen Ho Lee.
The plaintiffs' main complaint is not that several thousand people have exited the diocese, but that they took millions of dollars of church property with them.
The suit also charges that members who wanted to stay Episcopalian -- mostly tiny minorities, but in two cases, one-quarter of the parish -- were not granted separate services on church property.
"There were people who wanted to worship as Episcopalians," diocesan spokesman Patrick Getlein says. "They were denied that. That was really quite something for the bishop and the diocese to hear, that there were Episcopalians turned out of their churches."
Leaders of the departing churches say no one has been made to leave and that the diocese has made it impossible for 21 departing clergy -- all under an ecclesiastical "inhibition" order -- to function as Episcopal priests.
Mary McReynolds, chancellor of the Anglican District of Virginia, the new ecclesiastical body for the 11 churches, said the diocese and the churches hammered out a "protocol" allowing conservatives to leave. The diocese then appointed a property commission to look at the assets of each church and levy an amount each church must pay in order to leave. Then on Jan. 31, the diocese filed lawsuits against each of the 11 churches.
"The members of the property commission were embarrassed by this situation," she said. "It was such an about-face. It took 13 months to negotiate that protocol."
Leaders of the departing churches, she added, suspect the diocese was pressured by church headquarters in New York to fight for the property.
"The curious thing is, not only did [Virginia] Bishop [Peter J.] Lee do a 180-degree turn," she said, "but the Episcopal Church had a policy of all property matters deferring to the diocesan bishop."
Mr. Getlein said the diocese never agreed on the protocol. "It was a work product given to the [diocesan] executive board and the standing committee, but they never agreed to it," he said. "It was nothing official."
Opening briefs filed by both sides are expected to take up the summer. Oral arguments may not start until the fall.
The crux of the case is a state law that spells out that in a division within a denomination, the congregation can retain its property if a majority votes to disassociate.
The diocese's position is that the properties are owned by the trustees as long as the congregation remains Episcopal. If it leaves the denomination, it forfeits ownership.