The almost five-year legal conflict between The Episcopal Church and breakaway congregations affiliated with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) began its latest phase in the Fairfax County Circuit Court Monday. It may be the final chapter in the battle, among other things, over the historic Falls Church property.
Attorneys involved in the case say that the specifics of the dispute over the historic Falls Church property may become the focus of the proceedings either later this week or next week.
Following the defection of a majority of congregants in a December 2005 vote, there became two congregations – those that aligned with the defectors claimed the right to occupy the historic church, and have done so since the split, realigning with the new CANA group. Those who chose to remain affiliated with the Episcopal Church began to worship in a space provided across the street from the historic church at the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, awaiting the outcome of the legal dispute they hope will eventually restore the church property to their use.
On the side of the “continuing Episcopalians” at this stage was a ruling last year by the Virginia Supreme Court that overturned a lower court ruling granting church property rights to the majority of congregants, regardless of their decision to leave the overarching denomination. That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court on grounds that a critical Civil War era law informing the decision of Fairfax Judge Randy I. Bellows was unconstitutional.
Since that Supreme Court ruling, two of the nine Virginia church whose congregations defected and aligned with CANA have settled their disputes out of court, one, in Oatlands, returning the church property to the Diocese of Virginia and the other involving a Gainesville church last month. Both allowed the defectors use of the churches, in Oatlands through a lease, while prohibiting association with CANA. There were special circumstances involved in the Gainesville decision, such as major transportation work around the physical church making it extremely difficult to access and a $1.95 million compensation from the Virginia Department of Transportation that went to the diocese.
This Monday’s opening statements between the two sides (totaling more than 20 lawyers between them) were made in front of Judge Bellows.
Mary Kostel, one of the lawyers representing The Episcopal Church, argued that a previous ruling supporting The Episcopal Church’s ownership of the property was correct because it was “reasonable to assume the organization was united to the higher [church] authority” and that the congregation was bound to the general church rule and would need to seek approval before separating.
The lawyers for CANA, representing the remaining seven of the nine breakaway congregations in Virginia, responded with a lengthy and detailed explanation of why The Episcopal Church claim to the property was not legitimate according to both the church’s constitution and Virginia law, arguing that the wider diocese did not have possession of the building and were simply using the word Episcopal as a “magic talisman” to grant them rights over any building with the word in it, violating, they claimed, Virginia code 57-7.1 and Green V. Lewis.
The suit between The Episcopal Church and CANA goes back to December of 2006, when the congregation of The Falls Church voted 1221 to 127 to disaffiliate from The Episcopal Church, mainly due to The Episcopal Church’s decision to allow homosexuals to become priests and bishops (the first openly homosexual priest was ordained in 1977 and the first openly homosexual bishop, Gene Robinson, was elected in 2003, triggering the conflict that led to the late 2005 defection.)
Monday, Judge Bellows said the recent settlements with two of the CANA-aligned congregations could have an effect on the cases at hand, and noted that he would need to see the official settlement papers between the two groups which are currently being finalized and signed.