The Virginia Supreme Court has let stand a lower court ruling that held the Dennis Canon has no legal effect in property disputes in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
In an order released last week, a three-judge writ panel of the Supreme Court refused to hear the Diocese of Virginia’s cross-appeal in the case of The Episcopal Church v. The Falls Church and left standing Fairfax County District Court Judge Randy Bellows ruling the Episcopal Church’s national property canon is not binding on the civil courts of Virginia.
In legal documents filed in response to the appeal by The Falls Church following the March 2012 ruling by Judge Bellows, the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia asked the Supreme Court to overturn a portion of the judge’s ruling. It argued the “Circuit Court erred by holding that Va. Code § 57-7.1 does not validate trusts for the benefit of a hierarchical church and by rejecting a constitutional challenge to that interpretation.”
In its pleading, the national church and the diocese argued Judge Bellows had made a legal error in his interpretation of Va. Code § 57-7.1 – the law governing the trusteeship of church properties.
The argued that Judge Bellows had “construed § 57-7 as not validating trusts for the benefit of hierarchical churches, for reasons that do not apply to § 57-7.1. Section 57-7.1 provides, in language too plain to require interpretation, that “[e]very conveyance or transfer of real or personal property … to or for the benefit of anychurch, church diocese, religious congregation or religious society … shall be valid.”
The brief noted the court had ruled that § 57-7.1 “‘did not change the policy in Virginia, which is that church property may be held by trustees for the local congregation, not for the general church.’”
“That was error,” the national church and diocese argued, stating “If § 57-7.1 does notvalidate trusts for the benefit of hierarchical churches, it violates constitutional guarantees of free exercise of religion and unconstitutionally discriminates against such churches by denying them rights granted local churches and secular organizations.”
The Supreme Court panel was unpersuaded by this argument however and refused to hear the national church and diocese’s appeal.
Canon lawyer Allan Haley writing at Anglican Curmudgeon noted that by their appeal the national church and diocese wanted the Supreme Court to read § 57-7.1 so as to give legal effect to the Dennis Canon and other denominational property trusts. However he noted that “Judge Bellows ruled that the legislature had not intended to change pre-existing Virginia law against general denominational trusts when it adopted the new statute.
“By its order, the writ panel expressly refused to consider the Diocese's and ECUSA's cross-assignments of this claimed error, so Judge Bellows' ruling on that specific point will stand,” Mr. Haley noted, adding that “means that the Dennis Canon has no effect in Virginia. Instead, according to Judge Bellows, Virginia courts will look to other indicia of ‘proprietary interests in’," such as actual ownership and control over parish property in adjudicating these claims.
In a statement released on 30 Oct 2012, a spokesman for the Diocese of Virginia said they were disappointed by the court’s decision not to hear their “cross-appeal which sought to confirm that the Diocese of Virginia and the Episcopal Church also have a trust interest in the property.
"Regardless of this development, this diocese looks toward the future with hope as we continue to serve this world in need," said diocesan secretary Henry Burt.
"We will continue to support the Falls Church Episcopal as they face this uncertainty with the same faithfulness they have faced so many others. We remain confident in our legal position and we look forward to the successful conclusion of this litigation."