Eleven conservative Episcopal churches won a legal victory Friday when a circuit court judge upheld a Virginia law allowing congregations to vote to secede from their parent denominations.
The conservative church members invoked the law to split from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia after disagreements over the role of homosexuals in the church. Those churches seek to take tens of millions of dollars in property with them. But the diocese says it's entitled to the property and has a right to settle church disputes without state interference.
In a 49-page ruling, Circuit Judge Randy Bellows of Fairfax found that the state law breaks no rules governing the separation of church and state.
The Virginia lawsuit has been closely watched as two of Virginia's oldest and wealthiest Episcopal churches are among those leaving: Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church both trace their history to colonial times. But Friday's ruling was expected to have limited impact outside Virginia because each state is governed by its own property laws.
Conservative church members praised the ruling even as appeals are expected.
"We have maintained all along that our churches' own trustees hold title for the benefit of these congregations," said Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia.
The denominational strife dates largely to the 2003 consecration of the first openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire. The denomination has adopted a general acceptance of gays. That has rankled the conservative minority within The Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the 77 million-member world Anglican Communion.
The dispute has revolved around interpretations of Virginia's so-called Division Statute.
The 1867 law passed was intended to help Southern congregations after the Civil War become independent from parent denominations in the North, according to William Hurd, the diocese's lawyer.
The law lets a state court determine whether a division exists within a denomination and gives a congregation the right to disaffiliate itself and retain its property.
The conservatives argue the law justifies their departure and claims to the property.
But diocese leaders counter that the congregations hold the property in trust and it belongs to the greater denomination. They argue the law constitutes state interference in church matters.
"We continue to believe that this Division Statute is clearly at odds with and uniquely hostile to religious freedom," said Henry D.W. Burt II, secretary of the Diocese of Virginia.
Several Virginia churches began voting in 2006 to part ways with the denomination. In January 2007, Episcopalian leaders ended negotiations and announced plans to pursue litigation.
Similar cases have emerged nationwide as the denomination struggles to remain united amid internal debate over the ordination of gays and what conservatives contend is a departure from Scripture and traditional Anglicanism.
Many conservative parishioners have aligned with Nigeria's conservative Anglican Archbishop Peter Akinola, who created the Convocation of Anglicans in North America as a haven for disaffected congregations.
Oakes hopes The Episcopal Church will respect Friday's ruling. "While we will continue to defend ourselves in court, we are hopeful that TEC and the Diocese will put aside this expensive distraction," he said. "While we disagree with their decision to walk apart from the worldwide Anglican Communion, we acknowledge their right to do so.
"We would hope that they would acknowledge our right to remain faithful to the tenants of faith that have given comfort to our forbearers who built the churches TEC and the Diocese are now trying so hard to take."