RICHMOND, Va. — The Episcopal Church is the rightful owner of a historic church formerly occupied by a congregation that abandoned the denomination over the consecration of an openly gay bishop and other differences, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The justices unanimously upheld Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows’ ruling against The Falls Church, one of seven Virginia congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church and aligned with the more conservative Anglican Church of North America. The Falls Church, for which the Virginia city is named, was founded in 1732 and traces its roots to George Washington.
Similar disputes in other states have been resolved in favor of the Episcopal Church, and The Falls Church case was the last remaining one in Virginia.
“We consider this a very clear-cut and definitive decision which we believe puts an end to this litigation,” said J.P. Causey, chancellor for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. “It’s been a difficult period, and there are some very good stories of Episcopal congregations that have persevered through this. Now we can put it behind us and focus on work the church should be doing.”
Scott J. Ward, an attorney for The Falls Church Anglicans, said he disagrees with several points made by the Virginia justices but any decision on whether to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will be made by the congregation’s governing board.
“Although this is not the outcome we had hoped for, our faith and our future do not depend on court decisions,” senior pastor John Yates wrote in an email to The Falls Church Anglicans. “… There is no doubt in my mind that we as a church are much stronger as a result of the trials that we have undergone.”
The rift in the Episcopal Church began with the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The issues later broadened to a range of theological issues, including fundamental interpretations of Scripture, resulting in The Falls Church’s defection in 2006.
Bellows initially ruled in favor of the conservative congregations in 2008, applying a unique Virginia law dating to the Civil War governing ownership of churches divided on the issue of slavery. However, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that law didn’t apply and sent the case back to Bellows with orders to settle the dispute based on contract and real estate law.
This time, the justices said Bellows got it right. They noted that The Falls Church agreed to be governed by the Episcopal Church and actively participated in the diocese, including sending representatives to the annual convention every year for at least a century. Under those circumstances, the court said, it’s clear that all parties expected the property at issue to be held in trust by The Falls Church for the benefit of the Episcopal Church and the diocese.
“The fact that The Falls Church attempted to withdraw from TEC and the Diocese and yet still maintain the property represents a violation of its fiduciary obligation to TEC and the Diocese,” Justice Cleo Powell wrote.
A congregation of about 200 Episcopalians now worships at The Falls Church, while the breakaway group congregates at a northern Virginia high school.