- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2005

A bill that would have given congregations that break away from their denomination leverage to retain control of church property died yesterday in the Virginia Senate.

Sen. William C. Mims, an Episcopalian who sponsored the bill, recommended that the measure be referred back to the Senate General Laws Committee, effectively killing the bill.

“My hope is … that it can be solved in the legislative session next year,” said Mr. Mims, Loudoun County Republican.

Mr. Mims’ bill was geared to allow some of Virginia’s richest and oldest Episcopal churches to keep their millions of dollars of assets if they decide to split over the denomination’s 2003 consecration of a homosexual bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, and the church’s decision to allow blessing ceremonies for same-sex couples.

Thousands of Episcopalians who opposed the decisions met in Woodbridge last month to discuss forming their own network of dioceses and congregations. Internationally, Anglican Church leaders have threatened to cut ties with the 2.3 million-member Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion.

The bill also would have allowed seceding congregations to be independent of any church, diocese or society. Currently, breakaway congregations are limited to joining another branch of the church or society.

Mr. Mims said the bill had nothing to do with Bishop Robinson’s consecration, and was instead drafted in response to a 2002 federal court ruling that struck down an 18th-century provision in the Virginia Constitution prohibiting churches from incorporating.

“That decision went off like a thunderclap among those in Virginia who practice in the area of church law, because it made us realize that many of our ancient church laws may be constitutionally suspect,” he said.

Critics of the bill maintained the legislature has no place involving itself in religious property disputes.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Senate Bill 1305, it should be this — there’s some areas we should just stay away from,” said Sen. R. Edward Houck, Spotsylvania Democrat.

The measure had huge implications for about a dozen churches, mostly in Northern Virginia, that are considering leaving the denomination over the Robinson vote. Among them are Truro Church on 8 acres in Fairfax with $10 million in assets and the Falls Church Episcopal on 5.4 acres in the city of Falls Church with $17 million in assets.

A law passed by the Episcopal Church in 1979, known as the Dennis Canon, mandates that any parish wishing to leave must cede all assets to its diocese. Several parishes across the country have chosen to start over as reconstituted parishes meeting in borrowed facilities.

However, other parishes wishing to leave the Episcopal Church — such as three that have recently pulled out of the Diocese of Los Angeles — have chosen to keep their property and fight out the result in the nation’s courts.

Bishop Peter J. Lee of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the country’s largest at 89,000 members, has said repeatedly he will sue any parish wishing to leave.

“We feel the bill would likely be unconstitutional in that it interferes with the separation of church and state,” said Nancy Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. “Obviously the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church and the bill would violate hundreds of years of faithfully developed canon law by legislative fiat.”

Motorcyclists will have to continue to wear helmets in Virginia.

The House yesterday voted 51-46 to kill legislation allowing bikers 21 and older to ride without headgear. It’s the fourth year in a row that bills to relax the helmet law have failed in a close vote on the House floor.

Delegate Bill Janis, Goochland Republican, acknowledged that it’s safer to ride with a helmet than without one. But he said adult motorcyclists should be allowed to decide for themselves.

• Jon Ward contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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