[Episcopal News Service] More than seven years after a majority of clergy and members of several Diocese of Virginia congregations declared they had left the Episcopal Church and the question of ownership of the property involved began to be litigated, the U.S. Supreme Court refused on March 10 to hear the appeal of the last congregation still at odds with the Episcopal Church and the diocese.
The court gave no reason for deciding not to review a 2013 ruling by the Virginia Supreme Court reaffirming an earlier 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 court’s decision was included in its March 10 order list and was one of 121 requests for review that it refused.
All that remains in the case is for the Diocese of Virginia to request an order from the Fairfax Circuit Court releasing to the diocese more than $2.6 million that was in the Falls Church’s bank accounts at the time of the split and that the court has been holding in escrow during the progression of the case.
“We are most gratified by the Supreme Court’s ruling,” said Diocese of Virginia Bishop Shannon S. Johnston in a press release. “We look forward to the possibilities that the months ahead will bring, and continue to keep those affected by the litigation in our prayers.”
In an accompanying letter to the diocese, Johnston called March 10 “an important day for our diocese” because of the ruling.
We finally can say, with great thankfulness, that the Diocese of Virginia no longer is involved in property litigation …[and] … The Falls Church Episcopal is free to continue to worship and grow in its home church buildings.”
“Although today marks an official and much anticipated end to the litigation, it also marks a beginning,” the bishop said. “We will now be able to focus fully our attentions on the many truly exciting ministries all over our diocese. I pray that those in the [Convocation of Anglicans in North American] congregations will join us in turning this fresh page.”
The Rev. John Ohmer, rector of The Falls Church Episcopal, said in the diocesan release that “although it breaks my heart to think of where all that money and energy could have gone, today’s news is uplifting for our congregation.”
“My hope and prayer is that all sides can now continue to grow their communities of worship, ministries and outreach in our church homes,” he said.
The Falls Church Anglican congregation on Oct. 9, 2013 asked the country’s highest court to review the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision. A chronology of the court filings, including those from other interested parties, which followed from that request is here.
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.
After a Fairfax County Circuit Court Jjudge 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.
The Virginia Supreme Court on April 18, 2013 affirmed the circuit court ruling returning the Falls Church property to the Episcopalians. The Falls Church Anglican asked the state Supreme 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.”
Then in June 2013, the state’s high court refused to reconsider its ruling and Falls Church Anglican later decided to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the state court’s actions.
The leaders of the Anglican congregation have not yet commented on the high court’s decision, but in a Feb. 24 update to the members Junior Warden Kristen Short acknowledged that the request for review was “against the odds.” The decision to go to the U.S. Supreme Court, she said, was part of what she called the congregation’s ministry of “speaking boldly on behalf of believing individuals and faithful congregations across the country who are under attack.”
“We have tried to discern God’s will at every juncture and believe we are acting out of obedience to Him,” she wrote. “While we may not relish the ‘battle’ we’re in, we did not sense that the Lord was giving us permission to withdraw.”
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.