Conservative Episcopal churches win lawsuit over property

Posted on 22 Dec 2008 at 10:08am
By Matthew Barakat Associated Press

11 Virginia churches left national denomination in dispute over church’s position on homosexuality

McLEAN, Virginia — Eleven conservative church congregations in Virginia have won a lawsuit in which they sought to split from the U.S. Episcopal Church in a dispute over theology and homosexuality.

Judge Randy Bellows final rulings Friday. Dec. 19 found the departing congregations are allowed under Virginia law to keep their church buildings and other property as they leave the Episcopal Church and realign under the authority of conservative Anglican bishops from Africa.

The division was sparked by the 2003 ordination of an openly gay bishop set off a wide-ranging debate within the Episcopal Church, with conservative congregations saying that the church had abandoned traditional teachings not just on homosexuality but other key theological issues.

The congregations voted to realign in late 2006. Since then, the rift in the Episcopal Church has grown, and entire dioceses have voted to leave the denomination. Similar property disputes are expected there as well.

Whether the decision in the Virginia case is indicative of what will happen nationally is doubtful. Even leaders in the departing congregations acknowledge that the judge’s rulings turned on interpretation of a law unique to Virginia.

The Episcopal Diocese contends the law is unconstitutional because it requires a judge to wade into theological issues and thus violates First Amendment protections guaranteeing freedom of religion.

"Within the Episcopal Church, we may have theological disagreements, but those disagreements are ours to resolve according to the rules of our own governance," said the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, Episcopal bishop of Virginia.

Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, an organization formed by the departing congregations said he thinks the ruling will be "encouraging to other orthodox congregations across the country."

The Episcopal Church, with about 2.1 million members in the U.S., is the American body of the Anglican Communion, with about 77 million members worldwide.

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