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March 10, 2014

Supreme Court lets ruling for Episcopal Church stand

Justices reject appeal by a Virgina church that broke from the national Episcopal Church and aligned with the more conservative Anglican Church of North America. Episcopalians in Fort Worth are in a similar legal dispute.

The Supreme Court on Monday declined to intervene in a dispute between the Episcopal Church and a conservative northern Virginia congregation that left the denomination, ending a seven-year conflict over a historic church that counts George Washington among its members.

The justices rejected an appeal by Falls Church Anglican, one of seven Virginia congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church in 2006 and aligned themselves with the more conservative Anglican Church of North America.

The breakaway congregation claimed the right to keep its church building and surrounding property, and in 2008 a Fairfax County judge sided with it. But the Virginia Supreme Court overturned that ruling and sent the case back for reconsideration. In 2011, the same judge who first sided with the congregation sided with the Episcopal Church. Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court leaves that ruling intact.

Falls Church and other congregations left the Episcopal Church because of theological differences, including the 2003 consecration of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. But as of Monday’s ruling, the other congregations had settled their disputes, leaving only the fate of Falls Church to be settled.

The Rev. John Yates said Monday that he was disappointed with the ruling but believes his congregation was allowed a fair chance to make its case. While he regrets that so much time and money was spent in litigation — both sides spent millions of dollars — he said he believes the split was necessary.

“If you are in a marriage that is failing, that is just not working, sometimes divorce is necessary,” he said.

The Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The congregations that broke from the Episcopal Church reorganized themselves as the Anglican Church in North America.

The Falls Church was established in 1732, and the city of Falls Church draws its name from the congregation, in which Washington served as a warden and vestryman.

The Virginia dispute is similar to one that divided the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth. Litigants in that property dispute are waiting on the Texas Supreme Court to rule on motions asking it to reconsider its ruling in August that returned the case to the 141st state District Court in Fort Worth.

Staff writer Bill Miller contributed to this report.

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