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(RNS) A Virginia judge ruled on Friday (Dec. 19) that three parcels of land belong to parishes that have broken away from the Episcopal Church, handing conservatives an important, if tentative, legal win.
An 1867 state law, passed as Virginia congregations separated over slavery, allows a parish to disaffiliate from a denomination where a division has occurred while maintaining legal control over parish property.
Judge Randy Bellows of Fairfax Circuit Court ruled Friday the three parcels of land in Northern Virginia, which include church buildings, are covered by the “division statute,” as it is commonly known.
In April, Bellows ruled that a “division of the first magnitude” has arisen in the worldwide Anglican Communion and its U.S. branch, the Episcopal Church, over homosexuality.
Friday’s ruling ends the first chapter of an expensive legal battle.
The Diocese of Virginia, which is challenging the breakaway churches’ ownership claims, has spent $2 million on legal fees thus far, and has pledged to appeal Bellows’ decision to the Supreme Court of Virginia.
“One Virginia judge has looked at this case,” said Henry D.W. Burt, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia, “now seven Virginia justices need to.”
In 2007, 11 congregations in Northern Virginia voted to secede from the Episcopal Church because of the denomination’s support for gay rights and other liberal developments. The congregations have reorganized as the Anglican District of Virginia.
“We hope that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia will realize that it is time to stop this legal battle,” said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia. “In these economic times, we should be focused on helping our communities and spreading the gospel, not spending millions of dollars on ongoing legal battles.”
But the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia maintain that parish property is held in trust for the diocese and the denomination.
People may leave the church, they maintain, but the steeples stay.
Moreover, they believe that Virginia’s “division statute” is unconstitutional because it infringes on a church’s right to have its own rules.
“Within the Episcopal Church,” Virginia Bishop Peter Lee said in a statement, “we may have theological disagreements, but those disagreements are ours to resolve according to the rules of our own governance.”
The Rev. Charles Robertson, canon to Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, said “We are not surprised — or discouraged– by the adverse aspects of today’s decision…We shall now seek review of this case by the Supreme Court of Virginia and are optimistic that that court will reverse the trial court’s interpretation.”
By Daniel Burke
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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