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April 18, 2013


BREAKING: Falls Church Loses in VA Supreme Court (UPDATED)

Via Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, this just in from the Virginia Supreme Court:

120919 The Falls Church v. Protestant Episcopal Church 04/18/2013 In a protracted and complex dispute between the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Virginia and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America (together, the plaintiffs) and seven local congregations which disaffiliated from the plaintiffs, raising issues about whether the trial court properly applied neutral principles of law in deciding the ownership of church property, whether that application was constitutional, and whether the trial court granted the proper relief, the plaintiffs have shown that they have a proprietary interest in the property at issue, and that the fiduciary relationship required to impose a constructive trust exists under the facts presented. Thus, equity dictates that a constructive denominational trust be imposed on such property for the benefit of the plaintiffs. The judgment of the trial court with regard to the disposition of personal property acquired by the congregations after the vote to disaffiliate is reversed and that matter is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion. The judgment of the trial court regarding Code § 57-7.1 is reversed. The remainder of the trial court’s judgment is affirmed.

You can find the full decision here. Stand Firm’s resident canon lawyer, Allan Haley, will be looking this over and posting a full response to it.

UPDATE: Allan’s preliminary response:

The ruling goes all over the place. It says VA follows neutral principles, but then it says the Dennis Canon can be recognized by VA courts, despite the fact that the “trust” it created was invalid under VA law in 1979 when it was passed. It says that a hierarchical church _necessarily_ has more than just a contractual relationship with its parishes, but that relationship can’t be examined under neutral principles. But it does return to TFC about $1-2 million in donations made to it after it voted to disaffiliate.

 


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12 comments

A half a loaf…or the end piece?

[1] Posted by All-Is-True on 4-18-2013 at 11:11 AM · [top]

At least TFC got that much.  This pretend use of “neutral principles” to take parish property is beyond my comprehension, but it is what it is.  TFC now has its $2 million to get on with preaching the Gospel, and DioVA has the historic church to get on with whatever it’s doing these days.

[2] Posted by Katherine on 4-18-2013 at 11:18 AM · [top]

Saddened that a historic church building will be in the hands of corrupt people who ape the Christian faith and will be able to more readily deceive seekers and pagans.

Hopefully they will fail.

Blessings and prayers to The Falls Church parishioners—may they go from strength to strength.

[3] Posted by Sarah on 4-18-2013 at 12:13 PM · [top]

Someone more acquainted with the litigation can advise whether there are additional amounts that now will be owed or assessed against Falls Church, against which the post-litigation donations will be applied.

Sad, but not unexpected given prior developments.

Many of the largest churches in America did not exist 30 years ago. What is viewed as a secular loss can be used for great things in God’s Kingdom.

[4] Posted by Going Home on 4-18-2013 at 03:52 PM · [top]

The great legal minds of the Old Dominion are spinning in their graves.

[5] Posted by sophy0075 on 4-18-2013 at 09:07 PM · [top]

To be noted again:

Where is the DioVa’s HQ?
Where is the VA Supreme Court located?

Richmond

[6] Posted by RalphM on 4-18-2013 at 10:23 PM · [top]

Unfortunately, the amount of money that TFCA might recover is in the thousands, not the millions.

[7] Posted by Kathleen C on 4-19-2013 at 09:54 AM · [top]

RalphM, I can think of lots of other, more likely (but still not justifiable, in my opinion) reasons than “hometown referees” for the Court’s decision.  Lots of state high courts (with the notable exception of South Carolina) have been convinced to adopt the “neutral-principles-in-name-only” approach embraced by the Supreme Court of Virginia in yesterday’s opinion.  In fact, I would confidently say it’s the dominant trend in church property law:  claim to be applying neutral principles, but then give dispositive weight to a denominational trust clause.

Going Home, I think the portion of the ruling dealing with post-disaffiliation donations is the one win for the congregation in the ruling.  My understanding is that the congregation had been very generous in donations after the date of disaffiliation on the understanding that the funds would stay with the congregation regardless of the outcome of the appeal, and so the award of those funds to TEC was particularly troublesome.

[8] Posted by Jeff in VA on 4-19-2013 at 10:06 AM · [top]

TEC will be mortgaging the property to keep something it will call the Falls Church open for a while.  Within twenty years, it will sell the property to some Baptist megachurch (they will refuse at any price to sell it to the congregation who really owned it).

The Virginia Supreme Court was not following law; it followed the liberal culture of the legal community.

[9] Posted by KenChicago on 4-19-2013 at 10:23 AM · [top]

Jeff in VA,

You make a good point.  I agree with you that the settled case law seems to equate “neutral principles”  with absolute deference to the bylaws of the heirarchal church.  Neutral in this case means staying out of it and granting whatever the church claims.  So, I guess all they have to do is show some kind of oversight of the parish and they win.

That is bad enough on its own.  What really gets me is that there never seems to be any examination of whether the church is actually heirarchal or is just claiming that for convenience.  As we all know,  TEC is a special case and is at best quasi-heirarchal,  switching from one mode to the polar opposite mode as it suits them. Why is this not challenged before good folks have their property and all the money they invested in it stolen out from under them.  It truly boggles the mind.

[10] Posted by StayinAnglican on 4-19-2013 at 10:57 AM · [top]

Wow, my previous attempts at hyperlinks didn’t work, did they?  Sorry about that.

StayinAnglican (#10), I think the categorization issue has been raised exhaustively by departing congregations, but to some extent trial courts’ hands are tied by existing U.S. Supreme Court case law, which really does only seem to recognize two categories of churches:  Hierarchical and Congregational.  Given the existence of bishops in TEC, presbyteries in the PC(USA), etc., it makes sense that given those two options, courts put TEC in the former camp.

That’s not to say it’s right.  There have been valiant attempts to argue that TEC is hierarchical for some purposes but congregational for others, but in light of the current law on how churches are organized, that’s been an unsuccessful argument so far, and will likely continue to be unless and until SCOTUS takes the issue up again.

[11] Posted by Jeff in VA on 4-19-2013 at 11:05 AM · [top]

It says that a hierarchical church _necessarily_ has more than just a contractual relationship with its parishes, but that relationship can’t be examined under neutral principles.

How is this relevant? Under any literate reading of Mihailovich, TEC is not a hierarchical church. I think this might be worth an appeal to SCOTUS.

[12] Posted by Roland on 4-20-2013 at 12:52 AM · [top]

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