Court ruling on church property rights criticized

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The Resident Bishop and the Chancellor of the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church have issued a joint statement calling a recent ruling of the Circuit Court of Fairfax County “deeply troubling” and a violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

On June 27 a Fairfax County Circuit Court judge upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia statute allowing congregations to secede from their parent denominations and take their property with them. The statute, known as “the Division Statute,” was enacted by the Virginia legislature in 1867 and allowed local churches separating from their northern-based denominations to seize church property in an era of disputes over slavery.

The recent court ruling was made as part of an ongoing lawsuit between the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and 11 conservative congregations that voted to leave the Episcopal denomination and want to keep church buildings, land and other assets. The Episcopal Church, like The United Methodist Church, has denominational laws stipulating that all property is held in trust for the entire denomination and is not owned by the local church. According to church laws, if a congregation closes or decides to leave the denomination, the regional offices of the denomination assume control of the property.

Commenting on the court’s ruling, Bishop Charlene P. Kammerer, religious leader of more than 341,000 United Methodists in Virginia, and Chancellor W. Clark Williams Jr., legal counsel for the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church, wrote that they are “very disappointed and deeply troubled by this decision of the Virginia Circuit Court.”

“We believe, as we argued in an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief to the Court, that the Virginia Division Statute is in direct violation of the First Amendment,” Bishop Kammerer and Chancellor Williams wrote. ” We believe that the Virginia state government through its legislature and its courts has unconstitutionally inserted itself into the polity and doctrine of the Episcopal Church, and entangled itself in the process of discernment and discipline of that church.”

Bishop Kammerer and Chancellor Williams called on the courts to reverse the ruling and allow churches to practice religion without judicial interference.

“As this case goes forward,” Kammerer and Williams wrote, “we pray that the Courts of Virginia, and other courts throughout this country, will recognize and affirm these fundamental First Amendment principles, and refrain from intruding upon matters of church organization, faith, and doctrine.”

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