- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Civil War-era law being used to allow a group of conservative Episcopalians to desert the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia with millions of dollars worth of property is on trial today at the Fairfax County courthouse.

Attorneys for the diocese and the national Episcopal Church, along with representatives of other mainline denominations, will argue that Virginia’s 1867 “division statute” is unconstitutional.

The statute was enacted to allow congregations that dissented with their denominations over slavery and secession to leave with their property. It is being contested by the diocese and the national Episcopal Church. Protestant denominations such as Methodist, Lutheran, African Methodist Episcopal, Worldwide Church of God, Presbyterian and Church of the Brethren have filed friend-of-the-court briefs.

William E. Thro, the state solicitor general, will defend the statute in front of Circuit Judge Randy I. Bellows.

Today’s hearing is part of a multi-trial battle pitting the diocese against 11 conservative churches who broke away from the denomination 18 months ago over issues of biblical authority and the 2003 election of the openly gay Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire. Most of Virginia’s bishops and delegates to the 2003 Episcopal General Convention in Minneapolis voted for his election.

A conservative minority of Episcopalians, centered in Northern Virginia, coalesced in opposing the election and announced in late 2006 they were leaving the diocese and taking $30 million to $40 million worth of property with them. The churches now belong to the Anglican District of Virginia.

The Episcopal Diocese sued to keep the dissenters from using the division statute to keep the property. But when Judge Bellows ruled April 3 that the division statute applied, the diocese challenged the statute’s constitutionality.

The diocese says the statute discriminates against hierarchical churches, which answer to denominational headquarters, in favor of congregational ones, in which local churches make decisions about their leaders, finances and property.

“Matters of faith, governance and doctrine are to be free from government interference,” the diocese said in its May 15 statement, adding that the division statute is “hostile to the concept of religious freedom.”

Jim Oakes, vice chairman for the Anglican District of Virginia, said the division statute, which is unique to Virginia, protects church property for those members who have a stake in it.

The Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia have never actually owned any of the property, and their names do not appear on the deeds, he said. “The Virginia Supreme Court has consistently stated that Virginia does not recognize denominational trusts of the sort asserted by the Episcopal Church and the diocese.”

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