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April 4, 2012

Column #1,597

How Former Episcopalians Can Achieve Freedom of Religion

By Mike McManus

            FALLS CHURCH, VA -The First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

            However, The Episcopal Church (TEC) is prohibiting my “free exercise” of religion at The Falls Church, a congregation after whom Falls Church, Virginia is named. TEC asserts that since the congregation voted to leave The Episcopal Church and become an Anglican congregation, that TEC has a right to seize our property! 

            What’s sad is that it had been upheld by a local court, on grounds that TEC is a hierarchical church with that power. Shortly after Easter, our 3,000 members must abandon the facility, valued at $10+ million, turn over vestments, prayer books and even our bank account to less than 100 people who remained loyal to TEC. We will have to worship in a high school. 

This is wrong.

            The Falls Church was organized 278 years ago.  George Washington himself served on the Vestry that voted to build the historic congregation erected in 1769.  The Episcopal Church wasn’t even established until decades later.  It contributed nothing to build the historic church, nor the adjacent modern, church-in-the round facility erected 15 years ago.  

            Our church and two other congregations in Northern Virginia are appealing the case to the Virginia Supreme Court.  Sadly, it has already ruled against us once.

            However, this is a much bigger issue than three churches in Northern Virginia.  It involves 150 to 180 congregations in multiple states in of formerly Episcopal Churches who have bolted to help create the Anglican Church in North America that has nearly 1,000 churches with 100,000 members.

            This development has made TEC’s Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori absolutely furious.  Her personal lawyer, David Booth Beers, has made millions filing most of the 77 lawsuits to seize churches.  She will not allow any diocese ending up with property to sell it to an Anglican church.  She said she’d rather sell it to a saloon.  In fact, one church in New York State was sold to a mosque at a fraction of what the Anglicans were willing to pay – for a church they owned before she swiped it.

            Three dozen churches have simply walked away from their own properties rather than pay huge legal fees in what is often a vain fight. Another 150+ are fighting.

            Two former Episcopal Churches and one former Presbyterian Church, have recently appealed their cases to the U.S. Supreme Court One involves Timberridge Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. Two TEC cases are Bishop Seabury Church in Groton, CT. and Christ Church in Savannah.  Steffen Johnson, the attorney in both cases, makes two persuasive arguments:

1.       In 1979 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Jones v. Wolf, that the First Amendment required courts to apply “neutral principles of law…objective, well-established concepts of trust and property law.”  It rejected the notion argued by TEC that courts must “defer to the resolution of an authoritative tribunal of the hierarchical church,” or church regulations.

2.      “At least five state supreme courts and one federal circuit hold that a neutral-principles approach requires courts to apply the State’s neutral trust and property law, without deference to church law or canons.  By contrast, four state supreme courts hold that a neutral principles approach requires enforcing language in denominational documents unilaterally asserting a `trust’ and that any state law defenses `are no longer relevant.’ This turns Jones on its head,” Johnson wrote.

For example, the South Carolina Supreme Court allowed a Pawley’s Island church to keep its property, as did Alaska and Arkansas Supreme Courts while Georgia and Connecticut Supreme Courts ruled for TEC and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. 

“The issue is of concern to a wide range of denominations – Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Pentecostal, and others – further underscoring the need for this Court to resolve the split.”

With three cases from three states asking for review, perhaps the court will pay attention.  Frankly, I doubt it.  Last week the court scheduled an unheard of three days to consider the constitutionality of Obamacare.  There are many other cases.

Therefore, I have a bold proposal to get the court’s attention.  Leaders of 80 churches in Fort Worth, 40 in Pennsylvania, 8 in California, 3 in Virginia, etc. – should hold a joint press conference at the National Press Club, and publicly ask the Supreme Court to grant Certiorari, to hear the three churches asking for review.

What’s needed is a scream of pain from average citizens in these churches who are losing their freedom of religion due to rapacious national denominations who gobble up individual churches like bowls of cereal.

“Justices, please hear these cases!”

           On Palm Sunday I worshipped at the historic Falls Church marveling at its beauty for perhaps the last time.  

This is wrong.

© Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus

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