FALLS CHURCH, Va. — The Supreme Court on Monday declined to intervene in a dispute between the Episcopal Church and a conservative northern Virginia congregation that left the denomination in a rift over homosexuality and other issues, ending a seven-year legal battle over a historic church that traces its roots back to George Washington.
The justices rejected an appeal from The Falls Church Anglican, one of seven Virginia congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2006 and has now aligned itself with the more conservative Anglican Church of North America.
The breakaway congregation claimed a right to keep the church building and surrounding property, and in 2008 a Fairfax County judge sided with it. But the Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling and sent the case back for reconsideration. In 2011, the same judge who first sided with the conservative congregation sided with the Episcopal Church. Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court leaves that ruling intact.
The Falls Church and the other congregations left the Episcopal Church because of theological differences, including the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. But as of Monday’s ruling, all the other congregations had settled their disputes, leaving only the fate of The Falls Church to be settled.
Rev. John Yates, who was defrocked by the Episcopal Church but remains rector of the Falls Church Anglican congregation, said Monday that he is disappointed with the ruling but believes his congregation was allowed a fair chance to make its case.
Yates said the vast majority of the congregation has remained with him since the split. They typically hold services in a nearby Catholic high school, and he estimated attendance of more than 2,000 at weekly services — nearly the size of the congregation before the 2006 split.
While he said he regrets that so much time and money was spent in litigation — both sides spent millions of dollars — he feels the split was necessary.
“If you are in a marriage that is failing, that is just not working, sometimes divorce is necessary,” he said. “We feel we did the right thing, and as difficult as it was, I would not do it differently.”
The Falls Church Episcopal congregation, which had been displaced until it was allowed back onto the property in the summer of 2012, has about 200 or so attending Sunday services, said its rector, Rev. John Ohmer.
“It continues to be a diverse group,” Ohmer said. “Our doors are wide open to everyone.”
The Episcopal Church, with nearly 2 million members, is the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion, which has 80 million members. The congregations that broke from the Episcopal Church reorganized themselves as Anglican churches under the authority of bishops who supported their conservative theology.
The Falls Church was established in 1732, and the city of Falls Church draws its name from the congregation, in which Washington served as a warden and vestryman.