Constitutionality of Va. Law is Next Phase of Church Case

Leaders of Falls Church Episcopalians who’ve remained aligned with the national Episcopal Church, after an arch-conservative majority from their local church voted to defect in 2006, said they were “saddened” by last week’s initial court ruling on who gets to control the historic church property.

But they proclaimed in a statement, “With or without the ruling, we remain the church, we will worship, and we will continue to reach out to those in need. We are reminded of the need now more than ever to proclaim our presence in Falls Church, and to reach out ever more diligently.”

On the other side, a leader of the defectors proclaimed, “God has provided wonderfully!”

Last week, Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax Circuit Court completed the first of three legal steps to determine if the “continuing Episcopalians” or the defectors currently occupying the church site will have control of the site.

He issued a lengthy ruling almost five months after a November 2007 trial that a Civil War-era Virginia statute, the so-called 57-9 statute, granting a local congregation the right to control the property it occupies would apply to the case involving the Falls Church defectors and 11 other “breakaway” congregations in Virginia.

As Judge Bellows said he would last November, he will now move to consider the second, even more important, of three issues in the case, namely, the constitutionality of the 57-9 statute, itself. He set the hearing date on that subject for May 28. Following that, he will move to the third phase in the fall, dealing with whether internal agreements within the denomination that the local church agreed to in the 1970s will have the force of real estate contract law.

Many following the case were not surprised at Judge Bellows’ narrow ruling on the applicability of the 57-9 statute last week, assessing the second and third phases to be much more important.

The constitutionality issue has ramifications for every church in Virginia and even nationally. Depending on Judge Bellows’ ruling on that matter, it could revert to the Virginia Supreme Court and even beyond that.

In a statement received last week from Patrick Getlein of the Virginia Diocese of the Episcopal Church, it is asserted, “While the ruling in this case is not final, the preliminary ruling amounts to a government intrusion into a denomination’s right to self-governance and reaches far beyond the Episcopal Church and issues of property….(It) puts every hierarchical denomination on notice that a group of persons who no longer wish to be part of the denomination can now split off, form a new group, self-declare they are a branch of the original group and assert rights under the law regardless of the denomination’s own rules.”

Meanwhile, the defectors who continue to occupy the historic Falls Church property hailed Judge Bellows’ preliminary ruling last week. In a letter to that group, which is now aligned with the right-wing Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, the Rev. John Yates wrote on their web site, “We are grateful for this initial victory today. It is huge! God has provided wonderfully.”

A prominent member of the congregation, K.C. McAlpin, wrote in a letter to the editor, published elsewhere in this edition, that Judge Bellows’ decision marked “a major victory for the freedom of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.”

But the Diocese and national Episcopal stand is that the guarantee of freedom of religion was undermined by a ruling on a statute that empowers the government to step in and rule on the affairs within a religious denomination.

Meanwhile, the “continuing Episcopalians” in Falls Church, exiled from the historic church property to worship and carry on their church mission as guests of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church across the street, vow to carry on. The letter from their leaders, Senior Warden William Fetsch and Priest-in-Charge Rev. Michael Pipkin, affirmed their group “will provide for the needy, minister to the sick, comfort the mournful, and we will strive for justice and peace among all people. In our work as the church, we will continue to partner with local organizations, such as Homestretch, and we will develop partnerships with other Falls Church congregations, Episcopal or otherwise, as we meet our Lord in the faces of our neighbors.”

On April 20, the group will celebrate the role of Rev. Pipkin’s leadership, and will be joined by Bishop Peter Lee of the Diocese of Virginia at the special event.