By Matthew Barakat – Associated Press

 Judge says he will decide case according to Virginia law governing religious divisions that dates back to the Civil War era

The Falls Church Rector Rev. Dr. John W. Yates II, gesturing, is joined by Truro Church Rector Martyn Minns, right, as they address fellow clergymen, parishioners and reporters after the two parishes voted Dec 17, 2006, in Fairfax, Va., to break from The Episcopal Church and join fellow Anglican conservatives forming a rival U.S. denomination.

FAIRFAX, Virginia — Eleven conservative church congregations seeking to break away from the Episcopal Church in a dispute over sexuality and other theological issues have won a preliminary victory in a closely watched lawsuit that will decide who controls church property.

A Fairfax County judge ruled late April 3 that he will decide the case under a Virginia law governing religious divisions that dates back to the Civil War era in the mid-19th century. The language in that law is favorable to the departing congregations because it allows each congregation to realign by a simple majority vote.

The judge is still a long way from deciding who ultimately controls church property.

He still must rule on the constitutionality of the state law and must decide whether the departing congregations conducted their realignment votes properly.

The dispute began in 2003 when the Episcopal Church — a denomination with more than 2 million members in the United States and a part of the 77-million member worldwide Anglican Communion — consecrated an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The dispute grew to include questions about key theological issues of Scriptural interpretation and theological orthodoxy.

The departing congregations voted in 2006 and 2007 to break away from the Episcopal Church and realign under conservative Anglican bishops from Africa as part of a newly created Anglican District of Virginia. The Episcopal Church has refused to recognize the split and sued to reclaim church property.

Similar disputes have occurred across the U.S., and the Virginia lawsuit has been seen by some as a bellwether, in part because of the prominence of two Virginia congregations seeking to realign. Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church trace their history back to Colonial times and control property that is worth tens of millions of dollars.

In issuing his ruling, Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows rejected arguments by the Episcopal Church that the dispute between the congregations and the denomination was so minor that Virginia’s "division statute" should not apply.

He noted that 7 percent of the congregations in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and 11 percent of its baptized membership have left the diocese in the last two years.

The Episcopal Church has argued that individual members are free to leave the denomination, but that church property is held in trust and must remain in Episcopal hands.

Hearings on the constitutionality of the Virginia division statute are scheduled for May.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 11, 2008.
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