News

Fairfax Court Rules Decisively for Episcopal Diocese Vs. Defectors

Breakaway Group Will Have to Relinquish Historic Falls Church

In a critical, precedent-setting decision Tuesday, Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Virginia in its years-long effort to recover Episcopal church property, including the land and buildings of the historic Falls Church located downtown in the City of Falls Church.

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A QUICKLY-ASSEMBLED gathering of “continuing Episcopalians” gathered Wednesday night to happily acknowledge the court decision that will return them to the property and buildings of the historic Falls Church. Meeting across the street as they have for five years in a fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian, they sang and prayed all church members who’ve been impacted by the split in the congregation. (Photo: News-Press)
Breakaway Group Will Have to Relinquish Historic Falls Church

In a critical, precedent-setting decision Tuesday, Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Episcopal Church Diocese of Virginia in its years-long effort to recover Episcopal church property, including the land and buildings of the historic Falls Church located downtown in the City of Falls Church.

“Our goal throughout this litigation has been to return faithful Episcopalians to their church homes and Episcopal properties to the mission of the Church,” said the Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, upon learning of the ruling late Tuesday. The court ruled that the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia have “a contractual and proprietary interest” in each of the properties subject to the litigation. The court ordered that all property subject to its ruling be turned over to the Diocese.

The decision applies to seven churches in Virginia, all whose congregations left the Episcopal Church and realigned with a new entity called the Council of Anglicans in North America (CANA).

It has enormous consequences for them all, not least the historic Falls Church.

Since a majority of the congregation there voted in December 2005 to defect from the Episcopal Church, USA – protesting, among other things, the national denomination’s decision to elevate and openly gay priest to standing as a bishop – the breakaway group led by the Rev. John Yates has continued occupied the church property, unwilling to share it with those traditional Episcopalian members of the original congregation who voted not to defect.

The traditional or “continuing” Episcopalians were forced to revert to worshiping across the street in the loft of the fellowship hall of the Falls Church Presbyterian Church, and have remained united as an Episcopalian congregation since early 2006.

Based on Tuesday’s court decision, the breakaway group must now relinquish control of the property and sanctuaries of the historic Falls Church to the “continuing Episcopalian” congregation.

“Let there be no mistake, this ruling is 100 percent in our favor,” Henry D. W. Burt, the secretary and chief of staff at the Richmond-based diocese headquarters, told the News-Press in a telephone interview Wednesday.

The ruling will have a profound precedent-setting impact on efforts of local breakaway congregations not only of the Episcopalians, but other major Protestant denominations all across the U.S.

Based on Tuesday’s ruling, the next step in the process, according to Burt, is the submission by the diocese of a request for an order, based on judicial opinion. There are 45 days to do that. Then, the CANA congregations will have 30 days to appeal for the right to petition to the state Supreme Court. If they were to obtain that appeal, they would have 90 to approach the Supreme Court, and then the Supreme Court would have to deliberate before making a final ruling.

If the CANA congregations decide to “go the distance,” Burt said, it could be another year to year and a half before actual occupancy of the church properties in question are reverted back to the “continuing Episcopal” group.

In a letter to the breakaway congregation currently occupying the historic Falls Church under his leadership, the Rev. John Yates called news of Tuesday’s court decision “extremely disappointing,” adding, “From our human perspective this is sad, sad news.”

But he said that the congregation’s vestry has “given thorough consideration to plans, should we be forced to leave the property.” He added, “We will continue as a strong church family. We will move forward in Christ together with an invigorated sense of purpose as well. Of course, we are disappointed, but we will not look back.”

He said a special meeting of the breakaway group’s vestry was called for last night, and called for a parish meeting and time of prayer and worship for “as much of our church family as possible” tonight.

As for Falls Church’s “continuing Episcopalians,” the rector of the congregation, the Rev. Cathy Tibbetts sent out a special e-mail notification of the court ruling to her congregation, inviting attendance at a mid-week prayer session last night where the implications of the ruling would be discussed. She said there would also be more opportunities for questions and clarifications following the congregation’s usual Sunday services.

When the CANA congregations occupied the seven church properties they had been attached to, legal action was taken, and the original ruling by Judge Bellows favored the CANA groups. But his ruling was based on a Civil War-era Virginia statute that, upon appeal, the Supreme Court of Virginia found could not be applied to the case in question.

As a result, the Supreme Court remanded the decision back to the Fairfax Court, to be reconsidered without reference to that statute. Tuesday’s decision, as a result, came as no surprise to many of those following the case closely.

“We hope that this ruling will lead to our congregations returning to worship in their church homes in the near future, while finding a way to support the CANA congregations as they plan their transition,” said Burt.

Bishop Johnston added, “While we are grateful for the decision in our favor, we remain mindful of the toll this litigation has taken on all parties involved, and we continue to pray for all affected by the litigation.”

In addition to The Falls Church, the other churches involved include St. Paul’s Church in Haymarket, Truro Church in Fairfax, St. Stephen’s Church in Heathville, Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, St. Margaret’s Church in Woodbridge and Church of the Epiphany in Herndon.