Supreme Court strikes breakaway Episcopal congregation ruling
Says lower court improperly ruled on property dispute
By Jay Hart, Newsradio WRVA 1140 – 6/10/2010
Richmond, VA (1140wrva.com) – The state Supreme Court says a trial court improperly ruled that 9 northern Virginia congregations could keep the church properties… at least for now. Virginia Beach appellate lawyer Steven Emmert, who writes the blog http://www.virginia-appeals.com/, says the high court objects to a 19th century state law being applied that awards church property to breakaway congregations. Emmert says the court ruled the law does not apply to congregations that break entirely away and join another organization.
The justices agreed the court can define a church “division” without getting into church governance. However, they also said the “division” in this case needed to apply state law does not exist. The congregations indeed broke off from the American Episcopal church to join the Convocation of Anglicans in North America… which is an extension of the anglican church in Africa. While it’s true both organizations are under the Anglican church umbrella, the justices ruled that the two are still very different organizations under the law.
The justices remanded the case back to Fairfax County Circuit Court where they will have to use real estate and contract law to decide the case. Emmert says this is certainly a decision that brings any ultimate satisfaction to either side. He expects whatever ruling the court makes will come back up the appeal process. Emmert says the “ultimate question” is “this is an association of people, and the association itself owns the building… and when the association splits up, where do the keys go?”