Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Virlina District joins friend-of-the-court brief on church property.

The Church of the Brethren’s Virlina District has joined a "friend of the court" brief with other denominations, concerning recent court decisions in Virginia related to church property holdings. The district board made the decision to join the friend-of-the-court brief at its meeting on May 10. The issue was referred to the district by the Virginia Council of Churches.

A Civil War-era law is being used to allow a group of conservative Episcopalians to leave the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia with millions of dollars worth of property, according to a "Washington Times" report. The diocese, the Episcopal Church, and a number of other Christian denominations and districts are arguing that the law is unconstitutional. Splits among Episcopalians are over the election of an openly gay bishop, and biblical authority, and those leaving the Episcopal Church are joining a new Anglican body.

Oral arguments in the trial began May 28 at the Fairfax County courthouse. The case is not expected to conclude for some time.

If the Fairfax County court upholds the Civil War-era law, it will set a precedent for the whole state of Virginia, according to Virlina District executive minister David Shumate. Three other Church of the Brethren districts with congregations in Virginia--Shenandoah District, Southeastern District, and Mid-Atlantic District--will be affected along with Virlina.

The case could have implications for Church of the Brethren congregations in Virginia because under Church of the Brethren denominational polity, the property of congregations is held in trust for the use and benefit of the denomination.

The Annual Conference Polity Manual states, "That if the property ever ceases to be used in accordance with the provisions set forth [in the polity manual], or in cases where the congregation has been closed or the property abandoned, the district conference may, upon recommendation of the district board, assert title to the property and have the same vested in the district board, in trust, for the district."

If a congregation attempts to leave the denomination, Church of the Brethren polity states: "Any property that it may have shall be within the control of the district board and may be held for the designated purposes or sold or disposed of in such a manner as the district board, in its sole discretion, may direct."

However the Virginia law in question, passed in 1867 after the Civil War, during a time of dissension in churches over slavery and North-South issues, holds that "when a denomination or congregation divides, the majority can vote on who is the continuing congregation and who owns the property," said Cathy Huffman, chair of the Virlina District Board. "That’s obviously not how we’ve done it" in the Church of the Brethren, she said.

"The law that’s being referred to in the cases in Fairfax County says it doesn’t matter what the church’s polity is," Shumate explained.

The friend-of-the-court brief contends that the law is unconstitutional in that it inserts the state into church relations, Huffman said. If the law is upheld, "the state can potentially decide what is the church," she said. "The denominations that filed the brief are interestingly diverse, but they have the view that the church is larger than the congregation."

"It’s never fun when you have a fight in the family," Huffman commented. A recent conflict in a congregation in Virlina District has been "a vivid example" of problems faced by the Episcopal Church, she said. When the larger part of the congregation decided to leave, the group that continued in relationship with the Church of the Brethren was recognized by the district, even though it was smaller. The district board was "very cautious to make sure we were following Church of the Brethren polity," which made the Episcopal court case all the more disconcerting, Huffman said.

Huffman emphasized that in making the decision to join the friend-of-the-court brief, the district board was reminded by at least one member that their intent is not to signal that the courts are the way to go in church disputes.

In the 1970s when a Church of the Brethren congregation in Botetourt County, Va., tried to leave the denomination, the courts awarded the property to the district because the Church of the Brethren denominational polity was so very clear, Shumate said. He summarized the Church of the Brethren polity in a succinct sentence: "If you leave the church, you leave everything behind."

Source: 6/4/2008 Newsline

No comments: