Several national hierarchical denominations, including the United Methodist church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, filed an amicus curie (or "friend of the court") brief yesterday supporting the position of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia that the §57-9 division statute of the Virginia Code “cannot withstand constitutional challenge.” The other denominations on the brief are the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the Worldwide Church of God. This statute is the basis of the CANA congregations' claim that they--and not the Diocese--own church property.
The amicus curie brief makes two arguments:
Section 57-9 violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by requiring civil courts to conduct an extensive inquiry into, and then resolve, fundamentally religious questions.“Indeed, §57-9 is so hopelessly infused with religious concepts that it gave the Court little choice but to take the nearly unfathomable step of receiving testimony from experts on church polity and church history, in order ‘to assist the court in its obligation to interpret 57-9.’’ Amici Brief at page 2 (quoting Letter Opinion at 63 (emphasis added)).
Section 57-9 discriminates among religious denominations in violation of the U.S. Constitution.The choice to be a hierarchical church “is not motivated by purely ‘administrative’ concerns; rather, the choice reflects a belief – a belief that ‘religious activity derives meaning in large measure from participation in a larger religious community…’” (Corporation of Presiding Bishop v. Amos, 483 U.S. 327, 342 (1987) (Brennan, J. concurring). Amici Brief at page 5.
Section 57-9 cannot withstand such strict scrutiny. As the Court has correctly noted, “the legislature defers completely to the independent church’s constitution, ordinary practice, or custom, whereas in [the clause in §57-9 applicable to hierarchical churches], the legislature shows no such deference” to “a hierarchical church’s constitution or canons.” Ltr. Op. at 48 (emphasis added). On that basis alone, the statute clearly violates the prohibition against denominational preferences. Amici Brief at 10.
The issue of the constitutionality of the statute will be heard by the trial court on May 28, 2008. Then follows part III, the property hearing, in October. See our earlier post and the comments therein.