Court to review 'neutral principles' standard for church property disputes
A three-member writ panel of the Virginia Supreme Court has voted to review the case of the Episcopal Church v. The Falls Church.
On 26 October 2012 the court’s website stated it had “granted” The Falls Church’s petition for appeal of the March 2012 order issued by Virginia Circuit Court Judge Randy I. Bellows granting trusteeship of the property and control of the congregation’s assets to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia.
On 16 Oct, attorneys for the Northern Virginia congregation were permitted 10 minutes of oral argument before the writ panel, to state why they believed the court should review their case. Under Virginia law, civil cases have no automatic right of appeal. The state’s Supreme Court may accept civil cases for review at its discretion.
The office of the Diocese of Virginia was closed on 29 Oct due to the approach of Hurricane Sandy and unavailable for comment. However, The Falls Church released a statement saying it welcomed the court’s decision.
The church stated that their petition asked the court to “review the entire lower court decision for failing to follow U.S. and Virginia Supreme Court decisions applying ‘neutral principles’ of secular property and contract law to resolve disputes about church property. Our Petition also sought review on several other grounds, including some specific to the Historic Church building, where our deed pre-dates the existence of both the Episcopal Diocese and the entire Episcopal denomination, and to the "non-consecrated" property.”
The Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia filed a brief with the Supreme Court in support of one of the issues raised by the congregation. The Falls Church asked that the Supreme Court review the “lower court's decision to override the expressed desires of a substantial majority of our donors that their contributions should not go to the Episcopal denomination or Diocese.”
“Let's all be thanking and praising the Lord for this answer to our prayers. We look forward to presenting our case to the Virginia Supreme Court, but this is just one step in what has obviously been a long process, so please continue to pray for the next steps,” the church statement said.