The separation of church and real estate

The Falls Church choir

KAI RYSSDAL: Leaders of the Episcopal church meet tomorrow in Texas. They're facing an ultimatum from the worldwide Anglican Communion. That's their parent church. Anglican bishops are upset with their American colleagues over their positions on gay rights and interpretation of scripture. There's been talk of forcing Episcopalians out of the larger group. More than a hundred congregations in this country have joined the Anglicans and are threatening to leave the U.S. church. The split is over moral issues. But Eric Niiler reports there is also a more earthly fight going on.


ERIC NIILER: The Falls Church was here long before the wealthy suburban city that took its name. This is prime real estate. Church official Carol Jackson points out where members were buried before the Revolutionary War even began.
CAROL JACKSON: We're looking at what they call the church yard, which is a composite of graves. And then in the distance we have a memorial garden. The church yard has been in use since the 1700s.

Later on, the church became a Union horse stable during the Civil War. But these days this historic property finds itself in the middle of another battle. It's between conservative congregants and what they see as a too-liberal Episcopal Church. In December the congregation voted to leave the mother church. Since then, national and state church officials have sued to take over the land and buildings, worth more than $20 million. But Jackson says the members want what they believe is rightfully theirs.

JACKSON: We've all been making contributions financially, in varying proportions, forever.

It's getting ugly. The congregation threatened Virginia officials with trespassing if they showed up at services. The Falls Church has an operating budget of more than $5 million. It runs ministries, schools and a payroll of more than 50 staffers. But if the congregation disagrees with the national church, who gets control? Attorney Steffen Johnson represents the congregants.

STEFFEN JOHNSON: In terms of the equities, it's important to remember that the congregations built these properties. We haven't received a dime from the denomination to build these structures. In fact, in some cases the structures predate the existence of the denomination.

The national church strongly disagrees. The Rev. Jan Nunley is a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church.

JAN NUNLEY: The congregation may hold a deed to a church building, but the property is legally held in trust for all Episcopalians past, present and future.

The Episcopal Church is fighting at least half a dozen similar lawsuits across the country. It's already won cases in New York, North Carolina, Missouri and Pennsylvania. Nunley says it's the church's duty to protect its assets.

NUNLEY: Going to the courts is a shame to the church, and we're not happy about these situations. But we also have a fiduciary responsibility ourselves.

The courts must decide whether church law or civil property law wins out. Church law expert Martin Nussbaum believes the Supreme Court has already set a precedent in this area. He predicts the breakaway congregations will lose.

MARTIN NUSSBAUM: They get no money. They get no property. But they do get their integrity and they get to proceed and worship as they believe they are called to do.

Still, Carol Jackson of The Falls Church says she and other members won't go quietly. This is where they've married and buried their loved ones.

JACKSON: It would be a whole different dynamic for us to no longer be identified with this location. And we're certainly not willing to give that up easily.

At last month's meeting of Anglican leaders in Tanzania, church leaders called for both sides in the U.S. to drop legal proceedings against each other. But given the high stakes, that's one commandment not likely to be followed.

In Falls Church, Va., I'm Eric Niiler for Marketplace.

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