After 7 Years, U.S. Supreme Court Issues Final Word: The F.C. Belongs to Diocese

The U.S. Supreme Court announced this Monday its denial of an appeal from the congregants who defected from the Falls Church Episcopal Church in 2006, letting stand Fairfax Circuit Court’s ruling that the property of the historic church remains in the possession of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

Monday’s announcement finally exhausts the legal appeals of the ruling available to the defectors, ending eight years of contention which began with the defectors’ vote to leave the Episcopal Church in December 2006, to align with an Anglican bishop from Nigeria and to subsequently occupy the church property for over six years before before being mandated by the Fairfax court to vacate the site in 2012.

Central to the rift that led to the defection was the issue of homosexuality, specifically that the conservative rector at the church, Rev. John Yates, led the defection and subsequent occupation of the property that was ruled illegal, because of his opposition to the national Episcopal Church denomination’s election of an openly gay priest, the Rev. Gene Robinson, to standing as a bishop in 2003.

Yates and the other defectors, including a majority among 11 Virginian Episcopal churches at one point, upon leaving the Episcopal Church, aligned with the Nigerian Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola to form something called the Congregation of Anglicans in North America (CANA). That was due in part to the bishop’s strident opposition to homosexuality that recently contributed to laws in Nigeria making homosexuality punishable by severe imprisonment.

A congregation of “continuing Episcopalians” composed of Falls Church congregants who voted against the defection, has occupied the history property since May 2012 after a Virginia Circuit Court ruling went in favor of the Episcopal Church.

Now under the leadership of the Rev. John Ohmer (the Episcopalians having defrocked Yates in 2007), the “continuing Episcopalians” have restored two weekly services at the historic Falls Church property, and will host representatives of seven other Episcopal churches in the region for a Great Vigil of Easter service on Saturday April 12. That evening will also mark joining the church by new members. Growth in the size of the congregation has begun to mushroom, Rev. Ohmer told the News-Press.

The Virginia Diocese’s Rt. Rev. Susan Goff, the Bishop Suffragen of the diocese, will be present for that event.

Meanwhile, the defector congregants have continued to worship at alternative sites in the region since being expelled from the Falls Church property in May 2012, and may be moving soon to purchase property for a new church structure.

Court documents coming to light now include a letter from an attorney for the defectors, Steffen N. Johnson, in January 2007, just a month after the vote to defect, explicitly threatening the Diocese and any “continuing Episcopalian” officials from stepping onto the Falls Church property, and also that of the Truro Church in the City of Fairfax, as well, that the defectors had claimed for themselves. The letter stated:

“Given the Congregations’ (defectors—ed.) ownership, possession, and past and ongoing use of their properties, we expect that that neither the Diocese nor TEC (national Episcopal church—ed.) would want to expose itself to the substantial legal risk – including liability for trespass, unlawful entry, breach of the peace, and any other remedies allowed by law – that would be entailed in any attempt to engage in ‘self help’ by attempting to take possession of either congregation’s property or to place another priest in charge of the church premises…By receipt of this letter, you are on notice that no TEC of Diocesan official, employee, or any agent may set foot on either congregation’s property without the express permission from that congregation’s vestry.”

Both sides in the legal dispute issued public statements after Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court was announced.

Diocese of Virginia Statement

The following is a letter issued by the Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Episcopalian Bishop of Virginia:

“Today is an important day for our Diocese. We finally can say, with great thankfulness, that the Diocese of Virginia no longer is involved in property litigation. The U.S. Supreme Court has denied the Falls Church CANA’s petition. That means The Falls Church Episcopal is free to continue to worship and grow in its home church buildings.

“Although today marks an official and much anticipated end to the litigation, it also marks a beginning. We will now be able to focus fully our attentions on the many truly exciting ministries all over our Diocese. I pray that those in the CANA congregations will join us in turning this fresh page.

“It is most appropriate that this decision comes at this time, following January’s Annual Council, where we gathered under the theme, “Awake, My Soul, Stretch Every Nerve.” In the spirit of renewal I have felt all over the Diocese, I invite you to join me and your brothers and sisters in 182 congregations as we explore new ways to awake our collective souls; as we take a fresh look at our shared ministries; as we stretch every nerve, beyond our comfort zones; and as we breathe new life into the mission we do together in the name of Jesus Christ.

“Our Dayspring team already has been making great headway in identifying sources of renewed energy and vision involving those properties that have been returned to us as a result of the litigation. I have no doubt that this spirit of renewal will be enhanced by today’s decision. Please join us on this missional journey that will stretch and inspire us as we find new ways to connect our faith community to the needs of the world.

“On this special day, I would like to recognize the clergy and lay leaders of The Falls Church Episcopal, a congregation that has continued to grow in love throughout this prolonged legal process. As always, our prayers remain with all of those affected by the litigation – brothers and sisters who now have the precious opportunity for a new beginning.

“Faithfully, The Rt. Rev. Shannon S. Johnston, Bishop of Virginia.”

Falls Church Anglican Statement

In an e-letter, the Falls Church Anglicans Rector John Yates and two vestrymen of that body issued the following statement on the Supreme Court ruling:

“We received word today that the United States Supreme Court has denied our church’s petition for certiorari and declined to hear our case. This means that the long legal process in which our church has been involved since we were sued by The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in 2007 has come to its end.

“We have pursued this legal process out of the conviction that it is one of the ministries that God has entrusted to our church and out of our desire to be faithful to God’s calling to see it through to the end. We are grateful that our nation’s civil justice system allows us this recourse and we thank the Supreme Court for its consideration of our petition.

“We will keep praying for the many churches and dioceses that remain embroiled in lawsuits over their property with The Episcopal Church or other denominations. We will continue to pray for clarification of this area of law, which has become increasing convoluted and confusing for the lower courts since the Supreme Court last addressed it in 1979.

“Although we hoped and prayed for a different outcome, we know that God is good, loving, and faithful. We have seen this on vibrant display in so many ways in our life together during these years, and we will continue to trust that He has even better things for us. The legal process may be finished, but in the end only God’s judgment is final and only God’s judgment matters. Our prayer has always been that God would be pleased with us for fighting the good fight, finishing the race, and keeping the faith. (2 Tim. 4:7)

“We move forward into this next season in our life together with great excitement and anticipation-and without regret. By God’s grace and fully relying on His good providence, we’ll energetically pursue all of the other ministries that God has entrusted to our church:

“We will continue to faithfully preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen again, “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-25) We will continue to share God’s love with our community and with the world. We will continue to plant daughter churches in our communities and beyond. We will continue with our ministries of worship, outreach, discipleship, youth ministry, healing prayer, and so many others. We will re-double our efforts to pray and pursue a new church home, trusting that God’s good plans for us are exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think.

“May God be glorified in all these efforts. In the family, John Yates, Rector Whit Jordan, Senior Warden, Kristen Short, Junior Warden”