CHICAGO Eleven conservative congregations that broke with the U.S. Episcopal Church and want to keep property worth millions of dollars have won a second court decision, the dissident churches said on Friday.
The latest ruling by a Virginia judge is part of the upheaval over orthodoxy in the global Anglican community.
The Episcopal Church, the faith's U.S. branch, has been beset by disputes, including one involving the installation of an openly gay bishop.
On Friday, Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled that the Virginia law under which the congregations want to keep the property is constitutional, the 11 churches said.
In April, the same judge said the 11 congregations are covered by the law, which was written during the Civil War era. The statute says any "church or religious society" that "divides" remains under the control of the majority, as does any property entrusted to it.
"We have maintained all along that our churches' own trustees hold title for the benefit of these congregations. It's also gratifying to see the judge recognize that the statute means what it says -- it's 'conclusive' of ownership," said Jim Oakes, vice chairman of the Anglican District of Virginia, to which the traditionalist churches now belong.
"We're thrilled to see this litigation nearing an end," he added.
LOCAL DIOCESE CALLS RULING 'REGRETTABLE'
Further appeals and additional litigation appeared likely because the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church claims that all church property belongs to it and that when a congregation switches allegiance, the property is merely "abandoned."
The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia called the ruling "regrettable" and said it still believes the law violates the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of church-state separation.
"The diocese remains steadfast in its commitment to current and future generations of loyal Episcopalians and will continue to pursue every legal option available to ensure that they will be able to worship in the churches their Episcopal ancestors built," it added.
Among the 11 breakaway congregations are the Falls Church and Truro Church, which have affiliated with the Anglican Church of Nigeria, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola.
In the case of Falls Church and Truro, the property is said to be worth at least $25 million, with historic roots: George Washington and his father served on the vestry at Truro.
The law involved in Friday's ruling was adopted in response to numerous church splits arising during the 19th century, before, during and after the Civil War.
Both Methodists and Presbyterians successfully invoked the statute immediately after its adoption in 1867.
The 77 million-member Anglican Communion, a global federation of national churches, has been in upheaval since 2003 when the Episcopal Church consecrated Gene Robinson of New Hampshire as the first bishop in more than four centuries of church history known to be in an openly gay relationship.
Disputes over scriptural authority, the blessing of gay unions, and other matters have become a worldwide issue and threaten turmoil this summer when Anglicans gather for their once-a-decade Lambeth Conference in Britain.
The ruling came while a rebel summit of conservative Anglican leaders was under way in Jerusalem.
There are several property disputes in the United States.
(Editing by Peter Bohan and Chris Wilson)