Judge Rules Defectors Have No Claim on Endowment $

Buoyed by the ruling of Fairfax Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows last week that defectors from the Falls Church Episcopal Church do not have a right to the church’s endowment fund, Falls Church’s “Continuing Episcopalians” are now mulling how to put the fund’s approximately $750,000 to its intended work of “furthering the Christian ministry in the area.”

While Judge Bellows followed the pattern of earlier his decisions in the 13-month trial to grant defectors from 11 Virginia congregations control of their church’s properties, including of the historic Falls Church in the downtown of the City of Falls Church, he did not grant the defectors control over the Falls Church Endowment Fund, saying its control should be retained in the hands of the fund’s board of directors.

Bellows’ ruling on control of the properties will be appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court by the Virginia Diocese of the Episcopal Church, USA. In that effort, the diocese announced last week it has retained the legal services of Professor A. E. “Dick” Howard, a renowned scholar and recognized expert in Virginia constitutional law, who is a professor at the University of Virginia Law School.

“I am very heartened by Dr. Howard’s willingness to take this case,” said William Fetsch, chief warden of the Falls Church “Continuing Episcopalians” congregation. “A man of his stature is not likely to risk his reputation on a case unless he thinks he can win.”

Howard served as the executive director of the Commission on Constitutional Revision, which revised the Constitution of Virginia. He also served as the counsel to the General Assembly of Virginia.

“We continue to believe the Division Statute (deemed constitutional by Judge Bellows-ed.) is a violation of the U.S. and Virginia constitutions because it intrudes into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other hierarchical churches to organize and govern themselves,” said the Rt. Rev. Peter James Lee, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia.

The outcome of the appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court may not come for another year, however, as it will be well into the spring of 2009 before the Supreme Court rules on accepting the case, and if so, arguments will not be heard until next August.

But in the meantime, the board of directors of the Falls Church Endowment Fund, whose secretary and manager is Robin Fetsch, wife of William Fetsch, “plan to let the dust a little bit, and to digest the judge’s ruling” before begin to deploy its resources, William Fetsch told the News-Press.

Judge Bellows did not make a clear determination on who has a right to the endowment fund, but he ruled the defectors, members of their new configuration known as the Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA) do not. Thus, ownership falls to the directors of the fund, which the fund’s own by-laws state are appointed by members of the Falls Church Episcopal Church.

“Insofar as the defectors have left the Episcopal church, they have no claim to that fund,” Fetsch explained.

Bishop Lee, in a statement issued last week, urged the CANA congregation occupying the historic Falls Church property to “drop its claim on the endowment fund, and thus allow the Falls Church (“Continuing”-ed.) Episcopal to use the endowment for desperately needed outreach in the Falls Church area, in line with the original purpose of the fund.

Concerning Dr. Howard’s role in the property appeal, the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Episcopal bishop coadjutor of Virginia, said in a statement, “There may be no other legal expert in Virginia who is as knowledgeable of the state constitution. We are preparing our appeal now and are confident in our position that this law cannot stand constitutional scrutiny. Together, we will explore every option to ensure that faithful Episcopalians in Virginia are guaranteed the right to worship as they please, without interference from the state.”