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Judge upholds church property statute

Fairfax Circuit Judge Randy Bellows today upheld the constitutionality of a Virginia statute that governs how property rights are determined in a church split, in a case that has pitted the mainline Episcopal Diocese of Virginia against 11 breakaway congregations.

In an April 3 decision, Bellows said the division in the church was such that the statute, Va. Code § 57-9, could apply to resolve the parties’ dispute. The critical next step in the case was to decide whether the 140-year-old statute passed constitutional muster.

Today Bellows said in In re: Multi-Circuit Episcopal Church Property Litigation that the statute, as applied, does not violate the First Amendment or the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause or the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. Nor is the statute unconstitutional because it requires a court to make findings of fact in case that involves religious organizations.

There is a constitutionally significant difference, he said, “between a finding involving a religious organization and a religious finding.”

Bellows said that “57-9(A) did not parachute into this dispute from a clear blue sky,” and its “existence cannot have been a surprise to any party to this litigation.”

The case is set for trial in October.
By Deborah Elkins

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