Since the consecration of openly-gay bishop Gene Robinson, dozens of parishes have left the Episcopal Church. Even when the entire congregation departs, however, the New York-based denomination says it gets to keep all the property, prayer books, buildings and bank accounts. Those who walk away must leave empty-handed.
Now, however, breakaway parishes are looking for better ways to get a divorce without giving away all the property. Christ Church in Plano, Texas -- the largest Episcopal parish in America -- cut a deal with its bishop which allowed it to keep its buildings in exchange for a cash settlement. And in Virginia, two more of the largest Episcopal megachurches broke ties this week with the Episcopal Church.
So why is Virginia the Episcopal Fort Sumter? Simple. Under Virginia code, when a church splits, the majority keeps the property. The law, on the book for decades, is a powerful trump card for conservatives and may explain why the battle has been joined in the southern suburbs of Washington, D.C. While Virginia law appears helpful to conservatives, liberals will argue that federal case law (and the denomination's own canons) entitle them to keep the property.
Ultimately, both sides will argue that the first amendment's freedom of religion favors their cause. Below is a copy of the relevant Virginia law.
§ 57-9. How property rights determined on division of church or society.
A. If a division has heretofore occurred or shall hereafter occur in a church or religious society, to which any such congregation whose property is held by trustees is attached, the members of such congregation over 18 years of age may, by a vote of a majority of the whole number, determine to which branch of the church or society such congregation shall thereafter belong. Such determination shall be reported to the circuit court of the county or city, wherein the property held in trust for such congregation or the greater part thereof is; and if the determination be approved by the court, it shall be so entered in the court's civil order book, and shall be conclusive as to the title to and control of any property held in trust for such congregation, and be respected and enforced accordingly in all of the courts of the Commonwealth.
B. If a division has heretofore occurred or shall hereafter occur in a congregation whose property is held by trustees which, in its organization and government, is a church or society entirely independent of any other church or general society, a majority of the members of such congregation, entitled to vote by its constitution as existing at the time of the division, or where it has no written constitution, entitled to vote by its ordinary practice or custom, may decide the right, title, and control of all property held in trust for such congregation. Their decision shall be reported to such court, and if approved by it, shall be so entered as aforesaid, and shall be final as to such right of property so held.
(Code 1919, § 40; 1972, c. 825; 2005, cc. 681, 772.)