There’s big news from the Virginia Supreme Court today, which Post religion writer Michelle Boorstein reports has sided with the Episcopal Church in its long-running dispute over church property with conservative breakaway congregations.
It’s a fascinating case that had the court parsing a 19th century law to determine whether the congregations had a fundamental division. The court’s opinion potentially impacts millions of dollars in church property and could play a role in the national schism within the Episcopal Church over the consecration of gay bishops and the performing of same-sex marriages. (The justices remanded the case back to Fairfax Circuit Court.)
The case and its surrounding issues is also one that has some long tentacles into the Virginia political world. As Attorney General, Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in 2008 joined the case on the side of the breakaway congregations, defending the Virginia statute on church splits when the Church argued it was unconstitutional.
Church lawyers had contended that the statute meant the state was meddling in religious disputes to determine when a church has experienced a fundamental divide, a violation of church and state. McDonnell opposed that point of view, defending the statute before the Fairfax Circuit Court, intervening while the case was still at the local level, in a move legal experts had characterized as unusual.
The Fairfax judge agreed with McDonnell that the law was constitutional and then sided with the breakaway church — the latter half of the ruling was overturned by today’s Supreme Court ruling.
But McDonnell’s not the only former attorney general who’s been entangled in this issue.
Even before the church property case went to court, then State Sen. Bill Mims predicted that there would be an argument over the constitutionality of secular courts weighing in on church splits. In 2005, he proposed a bill that would have allowed local church congregations to leave their denominations and keep their buildings and property, unless a legally binding document, like a deed, specified otherwise.
The bill was not wildly popular: It died after clergy of all denominations flocked to the Richmond to denounce what they saw as an attempt to insert the General Assembly into the touchy dispute about gay clergy.
Mims, who served as deputy attorney general under McDonnell and then became attorney general when McDonnell resigned in 2009 to run for governor, has now been appointed by McDonnell to the Supreme Court. The Episcopal Church case was heard right around the time Mims joined the bench; he did not take part in the ruling.