Friday, April 19, 2013

Virginia High Court Largely Awards Break-Away Congregation's Property To The Episcopal Church

In The Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, (VA Sup. Ct, April 18, 2013), the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed in part a trial court's opinion (see prior posting) and ordered that property of a break-away congregation be conveyed to The Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Episcopal Diocese in Virginia. While applying a "neutral principles of law" approach to the property dispute, the Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court's analysis of Virginia law. The Supreme Court held that statutory changes enacted by the Virginia legislature in 1993 repealed the state's prior limitations on the creation of denominational trusts and validated property conveyances made for the benefit of any diocese or religious organization. The Supreme Court went on to hold that after this change, the Episcopal Church's "Dennis Canon" supports the imposition of a constructive trust on the local congregation's property in favor of TEC. The Court remanded for further proceedings the issue of who is entitled to personal property acquired by the local congregation after its vote to disaffiliate from TEC.

Justice McClanahan filed a concurring opinion arguing that "the Diocese acquired their interest in the disputed church property, not merely by a constructive trust, but rather by an express trust pursuant to the Dennis Canon..." He reached this conclusion by arguing that prior Virginia law that prohibited the enforcement of express denominational trusts violated the Establishment Clause.

Reporting on the decision, the Washington Post places the lengthy and complex litigation involving one of the country's largest Episcopal churches in some context:
The Virginia Supreme Court ruled for the Episcopal Church on Thursday in a bitter, multi­million-dollar property dispute with a conservative congregation that had left the denomination over the Bible’s view of homosexuality and other issues....

On Thursday, the Supreme Court affirmed that the property was rightly given to the mainline denomination but said some of the nearly $3 million in church coffers belongs to the Falls Church Anglican congregation.
  [Thanks to Bob Tuttle for the lead.]