RICHMOND, Virginia: Eleven conservative Episcopal churches won a legal victory Friday when a circuit court judge upheld a Virginia law allowing congregations to vote to secede from their parent denominations.

The conservative church members invoked the law to split from the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia after disagreements over the role of homosexuals in the church.The law passed in 1867 was intended to help Southern congregations after the Civil War become independent from parent denominations in the North, according to William Hurd, the diocese's lawyer.

The conservative churches seek to take tens of millions of dollars in property with them.

But the diocese says it's entitled to the property and has a right to settle church disputes without state interference."Follow the money, it's always the bottom line !"

In a 49-page ruling, Circuit Judge Randy Bellows of Fairfax found that the state law breaks no rules governing the separation of church and state.

The dispute has revolved around interpretations of Virginia's so-called Division Statute.

The law lets a state court determine whether a division exists within a denomination and gives a congregation the right to disaffiliate itself and retain its property.

The conservatives argue the law justifies their departure and claims to the property.

But diocese leaders counter that the congregations hold the property in trust and it belongs to the greater denomination. They argue the law constitutes state interference in church matters.

The Virginia lawsuit has been closely watched as two of Virginia's oldest and wealthiest Episcopal churches are among those leaving: Truro Church in Fairfax and The Falls Church in Falls Church both trace their history to colonial times.
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