Va. Lawmakers' Intrusion Into Episcopal Church Dispute Would Violate Constitution, Says Americans United

Bill Would Allow Congregations That Oppose Gay Bishop To Leave Denomination, Take Church Property With Them

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today urged Virginia legislators to reject a bill that would allow dissident congregations that secede from their denomination to take church property with them.

The church-state watchdog group charged that the measure is intended to intervene in the internal affairs of Virginia's Episcopal Church. Under terms of the bill, congregations upset with the diocese's support for Bishop Gene Robinson, who was consecrated in 2003 as the world's first openly gay Episcopal bishop, would be allowed to quit the diocese but keep their church property.  

The Senate measure, SB 1305, would alter existing state law to make it easier for congregations that break away from their denomination to retain control of church property. The bill is moving quickly through the Virginia Senate, with a reading scheduled today.

"I can't remember a more blatant attempt by a state government to meddle in the internal affairs of a church," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "The lawmakers behind this ill-conceived bill apparently have little understanding of the First Amendment's religious liberty clauses. The First Amendment clearly protects churches from this type of intrusion by the government."

In a Feb. 1 letter to Virginia senators, Lynn urged them to oppose the bill.

"Virginia," he wrote, "has a proud history of respecting and preserving religious freedom.... It is against this backdrop that the Senate should consider the profound negative implications of SB1305. This bill would have the Virginia legislature intrude into the internal governing affairs of the church itself, which is prohibited by both the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution."

Lynn elaborated on those implications, noting that such a measure would strike at the First Amendment's right to the free exercise of religion by allowing the government to regulate how a religious group can divide itself and distribute its property.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.

Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.