I’ve been writing about theological and historical perspectives on religious identity, continuity, and division. See here and here and here. But what about the law? The problem of competing claims to what I’ve called the “religious DNA” of a faith tradition typically comes up during battles over church property arising out of divisions and schisms of one sort or another, within congregations or between congregations and larger church bodies. (I’m not going to talk here about the “personnel” issues that have given risen to the “ministerial exception” doctrine
These sorts of conflicts arise frequently in a country such as ours where religious life and ecclesiastical identities have often been in flux, and have always raised fascinating and difficult questions. An important recent example has been the effort to adjudicate the property of several Episcopal parish churches in Virginia whose congregations voted to break away from the Diocese of Virginia, and affiliate with the new “Anglican Church in North America” in reaction to the national Episcopal Church’s policies regarding homosexuality. Nobody, of course, disputes the right of a group of persons to worship as they please and affiliate with whatever religious group they please. The real question, put bluntly, is who gets to keep the church building, the bank accounts, the chalices and crosses and books and all the other material stuff of religious life. This past April, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled largely in favor of the Diocese and the national Episcopal Church and against the breakaway congregations.
The issues raised by these and similar cases are much too involved and messy for one blog post. But here are a few thoughts, connecting the legal questions to the other perspectives I’ve written about in this little series of posts.