Now there is a message from the Secretary of the Diocese of Virginia regarding the hearing. Here it is:
Next week, on May 28, 2008, in the Circuit Court of Fairfax County, the next major event in the litigation regarding Episcopal property in the Diocese of Virginia will occur. It is regrettable that we find ourselves in court, but the Diocese of Virginia has a clear duty to defend Episcopal Church property both for generations of Episcopalians past and those to come. I write in an effort to inform you as fully as I can about the issues before the Court, and with the hope that these issues will soon be resolved so that loyal Episcopalians who have been exiled can return to the churches they call home.
As you well know, a group of Episcopal congregations in Virginia voted to leave the Episcopal Church and affiliate with the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) in December 2006. They used a little-known, Reconstruction-era statute of the Virginia Code – the §57-9 “Division Statute” – to sue for court-approved transfer of Episcopal church property in violation of the Episcopal Church’s faith-based structure, or polity, and its Constitution and Canons, which order that polity.
While these congregations were free to leave the Episcopal Church, they were not free to take with them property that had been in the Episcopal Church, in some cases for centuries. In response to the CANA congregations’ filing, the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church asked the court to affirm that the property in question does indeed belong to the Episcopal Church.
On April 3, 2008 the Circuit Court of Fairfax County ruled that it was appropriate for the CANA congregations to file their claims under the §57-9 “Division Statute.” From the beginning, the Diocese had argued that such an application of the Division Statute violated the U.S. and Virginia constitutions. The statute, as applied, dictates how hierarchical churches must be governed, in violation of their faith-based polity and it impermissibly establishes a preference of one type of polity over another. In issuing its ruling, the Court acknowledged the presence of constitutional questions and scheduled next week’s hearing on those issues. The court has recently stated that it will not issue a ruling from the bench at this hearing. We understand that the Court will issue an opinion later this summer.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …. The Establishment Clause requires the government to be neutral when it comes to matters of faith and religion; it prohibits a legal preference for or discrimination of one type of religion over another. The Free Exercise Clause protects the right of churches to organize and govern themselves as they see fit. By interfering in religious affairs, the government would entangle itself in a “religious thicket” (as courts have often characterized it in cases on these issues) from which there can be no good outcome.
If enforced as written, the Division Statute only allows for one type of hierarchical polity, such as the Roman Catholic Church, or purely congregational churches – no other options exist. Our church’s hierarchical structure is based in the tenets of our faith, as a church both catholic and protestant. It is no mere accident or decision of convenience that we are hierarchical. It reflects a fundamental religious belief in the Apostolic Succession – the historic line of bishops – as well a belief in how we, as Episcopalians, live and worship as a community. Our fundamental faith unit is the diocese, not the congregation. We are governed by our bishops who trace their office and, indeed, their individual ordinations as bishop back to the Apostle Peter.
Six national churches and 10 local judicatories, representing nine denominations, have signed on in support of our legal efforts to have this law ruled unconstitutional. We are profoundly grateful for this extraordinary act of support and ecumenical fellowship. They recognize that the government of Virginia has taken the Commonwealth deep into the “religious thicket” and, in doing so, has put all churches at risk for unconstitutional governmental interference.
It is important that we remember that at the center of this dispute are our faithful sister and brother Episcopalians who wish simply to return to their church homes and worship there as Episcopalians. Please pray for all affected by this dispute.
Henry D.W. Burt II
Secretary of the Diocese"
The Secretary says "Please pray for all affected by this dispute." Let's do so.