Friday, June 1, 2012
Today, The Falls Church Anglican
filed a Petition for Appeal with the Virginia Supreme Court, asking that Court to review and overturn the decision of Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows in the lawsuits filed by The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Judge Bellows ordered The Falls Church Anglican to transfer to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia all of the church’s real property, approximately $2,800,000 in funds contributed by its members prior to 2007, and most of its personal property (bibles, hymnals, furniture, etc.). The Attorney General of Virginia today filed a brief in support of the church’s request for review of the trial court’s treatment of funds contributed by donors.
The church’s Petition
requests review on a number of legal and constitutional grounds. At the broadest level, the Petition shows that the trial judge failed to follow the Virginia Supreme Court’s 2010 directive to resolve this church property dispute by “application of neutral principles of law”— principles “developed for use in all property disputes” – and instead justified transferring the church’s property based primarily on the denomination’s internal canons. The trial court’s ruling
thus violates the U.S. and Virginia Constitutions by giving a denomination unilateral powers to override civil laws, powers not granted to any other entity, whether religious or secular, in Virginia.
As the Petition explains, the trial court’s ruling also violates the Constitution by allowing the denomination’s and diocese’s canons to apply retroactively and to govern historic property that The Falls Church acquired before it joined the denomination—indeed, before the denomination or diocese even existed. The history of The Falls Church and its deeds makes its claims especially strong compared with other cases that have come before the courts. The Petition also seeks review of the trial court’s failure to recognize the important distinctions between the church’s consecrated property (property used for actual worship services, primarily the Historic Church and Main Sanctuary) and its unconsecrated property (all other property). Even under the trial court’s legal analysis, such unconsecrated property is exempt from the scope of the denomination’s and diocese’s canons and should not be subject to transfer.
The Petition also focuses on the approximately $2,800,000 in funds that the trial court ordered transferred to the Episcopal Diocese. That ruling fails to respect the clear intent of the donors of those funds, who have strongly indicated for a number of years dating back to the late 1990s that the funds they contributed to the church were never to be given to The Episcopal Church nationally or the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. The Attorney General of Virginia, who has responsibility under Virginia law to protect the rights of charitable donors, filed a separate brief
requesting that the Virginia Supreme Court review this aspect of the decision in order to protect donor rights. It is hoped that the Virginia Supreme Court will be no less concerned to protect the rights of charitable donors in Virginia
than the Attorney General has been.
The Vestry of The Falls Church Anglican voted unanimously to proceed with the filing of the church’s Petition for Appeal because both the interests of justice and the vestry's duties as stewards of these resources support seeking review of the judge's decision by a higher court.
Another significant consideration supporting this decision is the currently pending requests of two congregations, an Anglican congregation in Connecticut and a Presbyterian congregation in Georgia, for the U.S. Supreme Court to review their cases and clarify the applicable legal standard for such church property cases. The Supreme Court's decision whether to review one or both of those cases is expected in mid-June. A decision by that court to grant review could have a significant positive impact on this appeal.
The Falls Church Anglican leadership’s efforts to negotiate a fair and equitable settlement with the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia had been unsuccessful. The Diocese had made it clear that they would agree to allow the congregation to retain only a few hundred thousand dollars while the Diocese would take more than $2,400,000 of the funds in question and all of the real property, in exchange for the congregation surrendering all rights to appeal. However, the filing of the Petition for Appeal does not necessarily bring the possibility of a negotiated settlement to an end. It is possible that, while the church continues its effort to pursue a just decision, the Diocese could become willing to return to discussions about an equitable out-of-court resolution.
When considering this decision, parishioners recalled St. Paul's determination to appeal his false arrest in Jerusalem and trial at Caesarea to the Emperor in Rome. He judged that to use the legal system of his time was appropriate and in no way compromised his faith. Paul's purpose was simply to be a faithful steward of all that the Lord had entrusted to him, above all the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit to transform lives. The purpose of the Falls Church Anglican is the same, following its motto—“that Christ be King in our lives and in the lives of others”—and its prayer that “all of the resources that God has entrusted to our care over the years would be used only and always for this purpose.”
The Falls Church Anglican
is one of 38 member congregations of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic