CHICAGO - A U.S. court has ruled in favor of 11 conservative congregations that broke away from the U.S. Episcopal Church and want to keep property worth millions of dollars, parties in the dispute said on Friday.
The ruling by a Virginia judge is the latest development in an upheaval over orthodoxy roiling the global Anglican community. The Episcopal Church, the faith's U.S. branch, has been beset by disputes, including one involving the installation of an openly gay bishop.
The churches that defected hailed the Virginia ruling as a victory but the decision is an initial one involving only one point of law and lengthy proceedings are ahead.
"We have maintained all along that the Episcopal Church and Diocese of Virginia had no legal right to our property because (Virginia law) says that the majority of the church is entitled to its property when there is a division within the denomination," said Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia to which the traditionalist churches now belong.
"Our churches' own trustees hold title for the benefit of the congregations."
Among the 11 breakaway congregations are the Falls Church and Truro Church, which have affiliated with the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola. In the case of Falls Church and Truro the property is said to be worth at least $25 million, with historic roots -- both George Washington and his father served on the vestry at Truro.
The 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church claims that all church property belongs to it and that when a congregation switches allegiance, the property is merely "abandoned."
The 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a global federation of national churches, has been in upheaval since 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop known to be in an openly gay relationship in more than four centuries of church history.
Disputes over scriptural authority, the blessing of gay unions and other matters have become a worldwide issue and threaten turmoil this summer when Anglicans gather for their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in Britain.
There are several U.S. property disputes and more looming.
In the Virginia case Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled that the defecting congregations are covered by a state law written during the Civil War era. The statute says any "church or religious society" that "divides" remains under the control of the majority, as does property entrusted to it.
The law was adopted in response to numerous church splits arising during the 19th century, before, during and after the Civil War. Both Methodists and Presbyterians successfully invoked the statute immediately after its adoption in 1867.
Among the issues still to be decided is whether the Virginia law conflicts with the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of church-state separation, since a national church is involved.
"At issue is the government's ability to intrude into the freedom of the Episcopal Church and other churches to organize and govern themselves according to their faith and doctrine," the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia said in statement after Thursday's court ruling.
The defectors "were free to leave but they cannot take Episcopal property with them," it added.
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