A Virginia circuit court judge has ruled that the statute governing possession of church property in case of a division is consititutional. An appeal to the state's Supreme Court is likely.
Judge Randy Bellows' opinion concludes:
Today, this Court finds that 57-9(A), as applied, is constitutional. Specifically, this Court finds that the statute, as applied in the instant case, does not violate the Free Exercise or Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment, nor does it violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, nor does it violate the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.
For 141 years, the Commonwealth of Virginia has had a statute available to congregations experiencing divisions for the purpose of resolving church property disputes. 57-9(A) did not parachute into this dispute from a clear blue sky. Its existence cannot have been a surprise to any party to this litigation, each of whom is charged with knowledge of its contents and, more significantly, its import. That the Commonwealth of Virginia, in enacting and reenacting a "division" statute, may be unique among our fellow states is of no considerable moment, for in a federalist system each State is free to determine its own path for the resolution of church property disputes within constitutional boundaries. Whether 57-9(A) would be constitutional absent the ability of a church to hold property in forms that would place such property beyond the reach of 57-9(A) is a hypothetical question which this Court need not address; the Code of Virginia most certainly does provide for such alternative forms of church property ownership. That the Diocese availed itself of this alternative ownership in some cases but chose not to do so in others (and not in the instant cases) does not turn a constitutional statute into an unconstitutional one. Nor is the statute rendered unconstitutional because it requires this Court to make factual findings in a matter involving religious organizations. It is not mere semantics to observe that there is a difference-a constitutionally significant difference-between a finding involving a religious organization and a religious finding. While it is true of course that 57-9(A) requires the Court to make factual findings involving religious entities, each of those findings are secular in nature. Hence, for this and all the other reasons cited in this Opinion, 57-9(A) is constitutiona1.69
The diocese statement reads:
Today’s ruling upholding the constitutionality of the Division Statute in Virginia is regrettable and reaches beyond the Episcopal Church to all hierarchical churches in the Commonwealth. We continue to believe that this Division Statute is clearly at odds with and uniquely hostile to religious freedom, the First Amendment and prior U.S. and Virginia Supreme Court rulings. We are unwavering in these beliefs and will explore fully every option available to restore constitutional and legal protections for all churches in Virginia.
The Diocese remains steadfast in its commitment to current and future generations of loyal Episcopalians and will continue to pursue every legal option available to ensure that they will be able to worship in the churches their Episcopal ancestors built.
The CANA press release states:
“We are pleased with Judge Bellows’ ruling today. After meticulous examination, the judge ruled to uphold the constitutionality of the Virginia Division Statute against all of the Free Exercise, Establishment, Equal Protection, and Takings Clause challenges raised by The Episcopal Church (TEC) and Diocese of Virginia. The Division Statute states that the majority of the church is entitled to its property when a group of congregations divide from the denomination. Therefore, TEC and Diocese had no legal right to our property. We have maintained all along that our churches’ own trustees hold title for the benefit of these congregations. It’s also gratifying to see the judge recognize that the statute means what it says—it’s ‘conclusive’ of ownership. We’re thrilled to see this litigation nearing an end,” said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of ADV.
The Opinion can be read here:
Court Issues Opinion on Division Statute Constitutionality and Other Statutory Issues (June 27).
Updated with Reuters.
Updated with Washington Post.