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Supreme Court Declines To Hear Church's Property Appeal

Publication Date: 
March 10, 2014
Andrew McIntyre

Professor Michael McConnell comments on the vageueness of laws concerning propoerty ownership within religious groups for Law 360. 

The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it will not hear a First Amendment-related property dispute between a Virginia church and its former diocese, leaving in place a lower court ruling that says the diocese owns the church's property.

The nearly 300-year-old Falls Church, which disaffiliated from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States in 2006, had challenged a Virginia Supreme Court decision saying the church's property in downtown Falls Church, Va., was held in trust for the diocese.


With the high court failing to hear the case, guidance on how such retroactive trusts can be applied remains troublingly vague, said Stanford Law School professor Michael W. McConnell, who represented the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed an amicus brief in November.

"The state courts and lower federal courts are hopelessly divided over whether religious denominations can obtain control over local church property merely by changing canon law at the national level, without complying with the legal formalities for property transfer under state law," McConnell said.

"The problem stems from ambiguous language in a 1979 Supreme Court decision, and it is causing turmoil and dissension in several major American religious denominations, including Episcopalians and Presbyterians," he added. "The Supreme Court caused this problem, and it should clear it up."