Who Owns the Chapel?

Who Owns the Chapel? January 31, 2012

The property battle between denominational bodies and the local churches that disaffiliate from them is heating up—and the list of congregations that suddenly find themselves homeless has grown longer.

Less than two months after the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in favor of the denominational bodies in two church property cases in that state, a county circuit court in Virginia ruled that seven more congregations must leave their properties to the Episcopal Church (see “Court order,” Jan. 28). Two, Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church, are among the most storied Episcopal churches in the country.

The seven Virginia congregations had disaffiliated from the Episcopal Church because they were concerned it was no longer committed to biblical and Anglican orthodoxy—as evidenced by its divergence from the global Anglican Communion on the matter of gay ordination.  They affiliated instead with the Anglican Church of North America.  “The core issue,” according to Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, is not physical property but “theological and moral truth and the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world.”

Note: This was first published in World Magazine’s early February issue.

John Yates of The Falls Church

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  • “”The core issue,” according to Rev. John Yates, rector of The Falls Church, is not physical property but “theological and moral truth and the intellectual integrity of faith in the modern world.””

    Well, the thing is, the US government is explicitly forbidden from ruling, or even considering, matters of theological correctness. And I’d hope that Yates is aware enough of history to realize why that’s the case. Though is quote there leaves me doubtful of that.

    Which leaves the legal matter of ownership of buildings purely and properly in the realm of secular law. One court has ruled one way, another court has ruled another way. Most likely that isn’t because the courts are/were looking at similar cases but rather that in one set of circumstances the ownership was legally vested in the congregation, while in the other the ownership was legally vested in the overall organization. Contract law and real estate law can get complex and non-obvious pretty quickly.

    However from the standpoint of who legally owns the buildings religious questions are and must be completely irrelevant. The fact that the buildings in question are owned by religious groups and used for religious purposes can’t matter one way or another, the issue is one of contract law, real estate law, and corporate law (as most religions are legally 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporations). The courts cannot take religious matters into account in any way at all.

    Otherwise we’d be put in the very bad position of having the government deciding the truth of religious dogma, and that can’t be done without establishing an official Established Religion and ruling that it and it alone is correct in all religious matters and all other religions are heresy. Historically that sort of thing hasn’t worked out well at all, as evidenced by the body counts of the endless holy wars Established Religions and rebels against them engaged in.

    Further, this is hardly a new situation. Religions, like all aspects of society, evolve and change. And some people don’t like those changes and thus the religion splinters. We’ve seen similar cases in sports clubs, garden clubs, Moose Lodges, and even the Society for Creative Anachronism.

    There’s almost certainly no single, universal, court ruling for such disputes. Each case will have a different contract, a different set of corporate bylaws, etc. I doubt strongly we’ll see the Supreme Court intervening.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      I don’t know who you think you’re arguing against, but you’re making a lot of comments (i.e., “this is hardly a new situation”) that no one would disagree with.

      The more important example: No one’s suggesting that the US government should rule on the basis of “theological and moral truth.” I don’t even dispute that the denominations have a solid contractual basis for these legal victories. I’m pointing instead to the moral and theological questions of whether this is really in the interest of TEC — and, more importantly, really in the interest of the kingdom.