Judge Tells St. Margaret's Congregation to Hand Over Church
Circuit court reverses original ruling after state supreme court decision.
Fairfax County Circuit Court told a Woodbridge congregation to turn over St. Margaret’s Anglican Church to the diocese they divorced at a ruling Monday.
St. Margaret’s and six other congregations in Virginia left the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia in protest of the diocese's support of same-sex unions and the confirmation of a homosexual priest as bishop, according to a circuit court report.
The court ruled in favor of the congregation in January 2009, only to have it kicked back for a second look by the Virginia Supreme Court in June 2010.
Now the circuit court orders church members to give the property and land to the Episcopal Diocese. A final order from the court is expected in 45 days, according to Jim Oakes, spokesperson for the seven Anglican congregations.
"Judge Bellows' opinion directs that the real property (the land and buildings) of the churches and the personal property of the churches acquired before January 31 or February 1, 2007 (depending upon the congregation) are to be turned over to the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia."
"Although we are profoundly disappointed by today's decision, we offer our gratitude to Judge Bellows for his review of this case," said Oakes. "As we prayerfully consider our legal options, we above all remain steadfast in our effort to defend the historic Christian faith."
St. Margaret’s Bishop Dave Bena posted on the church’s Facebook page Wednesday that attorneys are “digesting the 113-page ruling and will make recommendations to the affected churches.”
Bena also posted that the vestry has developed a contingency plan should the church be forced to move, but that for now the congregation will continue to worship at the location on Church Hill Drive.
How Litigation Began
The election of Gene Robinson, an openly homosexual priest, as a bishop in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church raised controversy. After it was announced in 2003, TEC received "hundreds of letters" noting outrage at Robinson's election.
St. Margaret’s and several other congregations held a vote to decide whether to stick with TEC. The decision was almost unanimous. At the December 2006 vote, 92 percent of the congregation voted to sever ties with TEC, according to a Truro pamphlet.
In all, 15 congregations voted to leave TEC between December 2006 and November 2007.
The congregations joined the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA), formerly known as the American branch of The Church of Nigeria. They are now part of the Diocese of the Mid-Atlantic, a branch of the Anglican Church of North America.
TEC declared that the congregations had abandoned the churches and were unlawfully using property that no longer belonged to them. It took seven congregations to court, including St. Margaret’s Anglican Church in Woodbridge as well as Truro Church and Church of the Apostles in Fairfax City.
Years of Litigation
The case went through the Fairfax County Circuit Court, where Bellows ruled in favor of the CANA congregations in January 2009, then to the Virginia Supreme Court, where his ruling was overturned in June 2010.
Bellows heard the case again during 22 days in April, May and June 2011. The court listened to testimony from over 60 witnesses and reviewed 1,000 pages of post-trial briefings.
The ruling? Bellows sided with TEC this time, ordering the congregations to give up the church buildings and other property.
What the Congregations Lose
As outlined in the court decision, St. Margaret’s will need to give up:
- The church itself, which broke ground on construction in 1963.
- The land on which is sits, a 10-acre parcel of land.
- Property on Prince William Parkway purchased in hopes of relocating the church, purchased in 2004. This 40-acre parcel was never sold
- All the additions to the church the congregation funded since it's initial construction. That includes a parish house and rectory.
St. Margaret’s and all the other affect churches also need to give up all personal property (such as church dues or pledges) acquired before Jan. 31, 2007.
To read about other affected churches in this litigation:
[Editor's Note: All of the above is summarized from the 113-page opinion court document written by Bellows and released Tuesday, unless otherwise noted. You can read the full document by clicking here.]