By MATTHEW BARAKAT
Associated Press Writer
May 28, 2008
FAIRFAX, Va. - A Virginia law that allows certain church congregations to vote to separate themselves from their parent denominations is an unconstitutional infringement on freedom of religion, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia argued Wednesday.
Eleven conservative church congregations have invoked the law and voted to disaffiliate from the U.S. Episcopal Church in a dispute over homosexuality and other theological issues. Thursday's hearing in Fairfax County Circuit Court was to determine whether the law is unconstitutional...
... But the departing congregations, part of a newly formed Anglican District of Virginia, argued that the law requires no meddling into religious affairs. Instead, argued lawyer Steffen Johnson, it merely provides a neutral way for the state to settle property disputes between opposing factions.
"In order to resolve the issue at hand, there is no need for civil courts to wade into issues of theology or doctrine," said Jim Oakes, vice-chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia.
Virginia's attorney general, Republican Robert McDonnell, intervened in the case to support the breakaway congregations' stance and defend the law's constitutionality.
The departing congregations voted in 2006 and 2007 to break away from the Episcopal Church and realign under conservative Anglican bishops from Africa. The dispute was precipitated by the Episcopal Church's consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003.
The Episcopal Church has refused to recognize the split and sued to reclaim church property. the rest