[Episcopal News Service] In a one-sentence order issued June 14, the Virginia Supreme Court denied a request from The Falls Church Anglican to rehear its earlier decision reaffirming a circuit court ruling that returned The Falls Church property to loyal Episcopalians to use for the mission of the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church.
The denial sends the case back to the Fairfax County Circuit Court for final resolution of issues related to personal property.
“The decision by the Supreme Court is about much more than litigation,” Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston said in a diocesan press release. “This decision is an occasion for all those, on both sides, to focus fully on positive ministries ahead.”
The Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal, said that he and his congregation are “relieved by this decision and looking forward to turning a new page.
The Rev. Deacon Edward W. Jones, secretary of the diocese, called the decision “an affirming one,” adding that the diocese is “looking to the future with gratefulness and optimism.”
The Falls Church Anglican has not yet commented on the ruling.
The Falls Church was one of 11 congregations in the diocese in which a majority of members voted to disaffiliate from the diocese and the Episcopal Church. Over the years, all but The Falls Church Anglican had settled their property conflicts with the diocese and the church after judicial decisions in favor of the diocese and the church.
The June 14 ruling is the latest in a long series in the dispute.
After a Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge ordered The Falls Church Anglican in March 2012 to return the parish property to the diocese, the Anglicans only agreed to allow the Episcopalians to return to the parish building to celebrate Easter (April 8, 2012).
However, the Anglican congregation soon thereafter appealed to the state Supreme Court and in the meantime asked the Circuit Court to prevent the Episcopalians from returning again until the high court ruled. The Circuit Court refused and the Falls Church Episcopalians returned to their property on May 15, 2012.
On April 18 of this year, the Virginia Supreme Court affirmed the circuit court ruling returning the Falls Church property to the Episcopalians. It was this ruling that The Falls Church Anglican asked the court to reconsider, despite earlier comments by the Rev. John Yates, The Falls Church Anglican’s rector, on April 28 that the Supreme Court’s “overwhelming rejection of our arguments … reduces our legal options drastically.”
And in his weekly message for the week of May 19, Yates said: “We have received further confirmation that the courts are not likely to reverse last year’s ruling.” He explained why the congregation’s leaders are “willing to lose our property and move ahead into an uncertain, unclear future.”
However, on May 17, the Anglican congregation petitioned the state Supreme Court for a rehearing on its April 18 decision. The petition argued that the justices mistakenly based that ruling on a legal theory that “has never — in over six years of litigation — been pled, argued, briefed, or proven” by the Episcopal Church or the Diocese of Virginia.
The court’s June 14 order did not address The Falls Church Anglican claims.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.