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March 13, 2014
Column #1,698
We Lost Our Freedom of Religion
By Mike McManus

This week the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving my church, The Falls Church Anglican, which means we will lose our right to worship in our historic congregation, the Vestry of which once included George Washington and George Mason.

The $40 million property now belongs to The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its Diocese of Virginia, and 100 parishioners who did not vote with more than 90% of the church to leave TEC and join the Anglican Church of North America. Each week our 2,000 members worship in a Baptist Church and a Catholic high school.

We have been deprived of our freedom of religion. It feels to me like theft. That’s not a word our Rector, Dr. John Yates would use. “It does feel unjust but I want to focus on how we move forward,” he says.

How could a congregation founded in 1732 whose historic church was partly paid for by our first President lose that property to a denomination and a diocese that paid nothing for it? In fact, the diocese was created by the Falls Church and a few others in 1785.

In 2003 New Hampshire Episcopalians elected V. Gene Robinson, an openly gay man to be its bishop. His election was approved by TEC bishops though he left his wife for a gay lover.

To us, Scripture is clear. I Corinthians 6:9-11 states: “Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves…will inherit the kingdom of God. And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified...in the name of Jesus Christ.”

Therefore we voted to leave TEC. Dr. Yates says the separation “in some ways is like a divorce. There are good things about divorces, but by and large, divorce is not a good thing.”

The divorce was more than painful.

TEC and the Diocese sued to forbid the departing church to leave with its historic property and a new church seating about 800. It pointed to a rule passed by TEC in 1979 called the “Dennis Canon” which states that all “real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish…is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof.”

Scott Ward, one of the attorneys who wrote the appeal to the Supreme Court, asserts, “It is an extraordinary thing to say a religious denomination has a constitutional right to transfer the ownership of thousands of church properties just by passing a canon or a rule at a church convention – especially when everyone else has to have a deed or some sort of a written agreement reflected both parties intent. But that’s what the Dennis Canon purports to do.”

For two centuries, Virginia law and Episcopal canons provided that Episcopal property was held in trust for “the congregation,” not the denomination. Falls Church, which has been governed by a locally elected lay vestry for 280 years – never agreed to cede its property to TEC, and has spent millions trying to defend its rights.

How could the Supreme Court not hear the case? First, it must be noted that 10,000 cases are appealed to the Court each year and less than 1% are accepted for trial. However, Ward and his colleagues noted on the first page of their brief that eight state supreme courts voted on one side of the issue and “five state supreme courts fall on the other” on whether the First Amendment requires civil courts to enforce church rules” that allow a retroactive takeover of property. .” Review is urgently needed,” they wrote in their brief.

The Supreme Court decided a related property case, Jones v. Wolf which requires courts “to determine whether there (is) any basis for a trust (in local church property) in favor of the general church.” The Virginia Supreme Court used that analysis to retroactively divest the Falls Church of its property and award it to the diocese and national church,

To me, that’s legal gobbledygook to deprive our congregation of its freedom of religion. The First Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Put this in personal terms. You have the right to join any church, or to leave it – without penalty. Otherwise, you would be deprived of your freedom of religion.

That’s what’s happened to the Falls Church Anglican.

Nor can we buy back our own property. TEC Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori has said she would rather sell a church to a saloon than to a departing Anglican Church.

 

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