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Since 2007, the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has been battling seven parishes that voted to leave the Episcopal Church over questions of theological revisionism and the sexual ethics of bishops and priests. The parishes -- including the 2,500-congregant Falls Church and 2,000-strong Truro Church, both in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. -- have sought to retain their valuable properties. After five years of litigation that went to the Virginia Supreme Court, Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge Randy Bellows ruled in January that the properties and all their contents are owned by the diocese and must be returned to them by April 30.

Only two wrinkles remained: personal property of the churches, such as pulpits, chalices, Bibles, prayer books, and the like; and -- most relevant for those following philanthropy -- $7 million in donations given by church members between 2003 and 2007. Judge Bellows ruled that those gifts must be handed over. The parishes appealed the ruling on the grounds that congregants specified in their check memos that the gifts were intended expressly for the congregations -- not the Diocese of Virginia or the national Episcopal Church.

In February, Virginia Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli filed a brief in the case, arguing that the parishes should retain the gifts, asserting “the public interest in the wishes of the donors being honored” pursuant to commonwealth law. Earlier this month, however, Bellows rejected Cuccinelli’s brief and ruled against the churches’ motion and ordered them to hand over personal property and donations, too.

But for people interested in the legal and moral priority of donor intent, Cuccinelli’s ringing argument is worth reading and noting. The attorney general argues that Virginia’s protections for donor intent supersede the law governing disputes over property. “That donor intent is paramount and governs the disposition of property, both real and personal, by one entrusted with its management is a principle beyond dispute and interwoven throughout the law governing charitable trusts,” the brief argues.

Furthermore, he argues, courts must recognize the link in law between religious freedom and donor intent. Quoting Thomas Jefferson’s preamble to Virginia’s religious freedom law -- “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical” -- the brief goes on to say, “Accordingly, the court must reject an interpretation of [commonwealth law] that would imply that donor intent with respect to personal property is to be ignored in the case of a dispute over church property, especially where individuals have expressed in no uncertain terms that they object on grounds of conscience to having their donations diverted to the support of a particular religious organization.”

Overall, the brief argues, the court should not rule so as to “command an involuntary transfer of donations from the support of one religious congregation to that of another, over the religious objections, and in violation of the clearly expressed intent, of the donors.”

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