Section 57-9(A) of the Code of Virginia is a statute that purports to resolve church property disputes. There is, however, a significant amount of controversy as to whether the statute encroaches on the free exercise rights of hierarchical churches located in Virginia and enmeshes Virginia courts in the ecclesiastical thicket. Given the debate surrounding Section 57-9(A) and the controversial shift of several mainstream denominations in matters of substantive church doctrine, Virginia is a fertile breeding ground for church property disputes. Accordingly, the Commonwealth is in the midst of an ecclesiastical crisis. The impact of the crisis is evidenced by the recent division within the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Virginia and the subsequent church property litigation that ensued following the division. This Comment examines the constitutional standards surrounding various courses of action states may pursue to resolve church property disputes and provides a specific analysis of Virginia’s statutory scheme for doing so. Current Supreme Court of the United States precedent establishes that courts have three constitutional options they can rely on in resolving church property disputes. Courts may defer to the decision of the religious organization’s adjudicatory body, a method of resolution known as the deference approach. Courts may also decide the case on the basis of a neutral principle of law such as property law or contact law. Finally, states may enact special statutes to direct courts on how to resolve church property disputes. This article argues that Section 57-9(A) does not operate as a constitutional method of resolving church property disputes within the Supreme Court’s established framework for doing so. Accordingly, due to the constitutional issues with Section 57- 9(A), the law in Virginia regulating church property disputes is on a path leading to an unavoidable ecclesiastical collision.

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Publication Date

Winter 2011