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Episcopal property dispute heads back to circuit court

The Supreme Court of Virginia today reverses and remands the finding that breakaway Episcopal congregations in Northern Virginia can keep their church property against claims by the established church organization.

The Supreme Court rules that a Civil War-era Virginia statute allowing dissident congregations to keep title to church property does not apply to the Episcopal dispute because the breakaway churches did not affiliate with a “branch” of the church body to which they formerly belonged. “[T]he statute requires that each branch proceed from the same polity, and not merely a shared tradition of faith,” writes Justice Lawrence L. Koontz Jr. for the unanimous court.

The court holds the mission of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, adopted by the breakaway congregations, was not a “branch” of the Episcopal Church because it pre-existed the division within that church, even though the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Nigeria both trace their origins to the Church of England.

The fight over the church property must be “revived” in circuit court, the court holds, “to resolve this dispute under principles of real property and contract law.”

By Peter Vieth

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