Church fighting Civil War-era Virginia law

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Episcopal Church leaders yesterday argued that a Civil War-era Virginia law governing church splits does not apply to its dispute with 11 Northern Virginia congregations in their effort to leave the denomination in a dispute over biblical authority and homosexuality.

At issue is an 1867 state law saying that a majority vote determines whether a congregation can realign and keep its property when a church faces internal division. The 11 congregations voted to leave the denomination, but Episcopal leaders reject the validity of those votes because no formal division has been recognized by the Episcopal hierarchy.

"Only the governing body of a hierarchical church has the power or authority to declare a division of such a church," the diocese wrote in court papers.

But Steffen Johnson, attorney for the 11 congregations, said history shows that the Virginia General Assembly envisioned exactly this type of dispute when it enacted the law. At the time, Protestant churches had been torn apart over slavery and secession, and the splits were never amicable or formally recognized by both sides.

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