The Religous Property Wars: Tkach Joins The Fight!

Who gets to keep the church
property assets?

Washington, DC— On April 3, Judge Randy Bellows of the Fairfax County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Virginia churches that have departed the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. Bellows ruled that a religious Division had occurred, and that the Virginia Statute on Religious Division, Va. Code 57-9(A), is applicable to this case. The Episcopal Church and the diocese are expected to challenge the court's decision. Bellows has scheduled arguments on the constitutionality of the Virginia statute for May 28. Methodists, as well as two African branches and the Worldwide Church of God, joined the Episcopal Church this week in challenging the constitutionality of a Civil War-era Virginia law on which the case likely hinges.

A majority of members in the 11 Anglican churches voted to sever their ties to the Episcopal Church and the diocese following disputes over the redefinition and reinterpretation of Scripture.

Institute of Religion and Democracy Director of Anglican Action Ralph Webb commented, “Judge Bellows’ decision commendably recognizes facts that the Episcopal Church refuses to accept. The majority of many congregations across the country and the majority of one entire diocese have voted to leave the Episcopal Church.

“And it’s ironic and tragic when a secular judge takes the Episcopal Church’s membership in the Anglican Communion more seriously than the denomination itself. Bellows rightly recognizes that ‘the CANA (Convocation of Anglicans in North America) [c]ongregations were bound by personal ties of ‘affection or sympathy’ with the Anglican Communion’ both before and after they left the Episcopal Church.

“The ruling should cause the Episcopal Church to take a long look at its harsh, take-no-prisoners approach to dealing with church property. This result was by no means inevitable. The denomination should have allowed the diocese to sit down at the table with the CANA congregations.

“Sadly, the Episcopal Church appears more interested in property than people, and more interested in the recovery of property than in reconciliation. Christians certainly can legitimately differ in their conclusions about who lawfully should possess the property. But sometimes you can be overly zealous concerning some goal that you’ll either never reach or will attain at too great a cost.

Will the Episcopal Church gain the world but lose its soul in the process?”

The lawsuit demands that the congregations vacate the properties and asks the court to affirm that the land and churches belong to the diocese. The government didn't step into the dispute between the parishes and the diocese on its own initiative. It was invited in by a lawsuit (in a government court) initiated by the diocese. The diocese wants the government to involve itself in its affairs by using government force to take the parish property and give it to the diocese. But the breakaway churches from the denomination have won the first skirmish in this ongoing battle for control over the property.

The Diocese of Virginia has probably already expended more than $1 million in lawsuits to retain the property of a number of parishes that recently voted to leave. The Diocese recently obtained a $2 million line of credit to further finance those suits. Although $30 million to $40 million of property is at stake, (an amount on the scale offered in exchange for the Ambassador College Pasadena campus) for those $3 million, and the countless hours of time the suits will require from bishops, priests, and laity, the Diocese of Virginia could fund charitable activities rather than line the pockets of those with a "dog in the fight." (AW kudos to Gavin)

Andrews and Kurth, a well-respected Washington, DC firm with international offices, filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Worldwide Church of God. This law firm doesn't come cheap, either. While what money Tkach is paying for such stellar legal counsel is another WCG undisclosed unknown, starting first year associates at the firm are paid at least $160,000 plus perks, which should translate into some hefty legal fees by the partners when billing Tkach for their services. Thomas E. Starnes, is senior counsel on the WCG amicus brief. His biographical experience includes having "been hired as counsel to defend claims asserted against—and especially to enforce the property rights of—some of the country’s largest and most established religious denominations, including The United Methodist Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He has been retained as counsel on litigation matters by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church; on personnel issues by the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church; and he currently is honored to serve as Chancellor of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church."

Attorney Starnes is undoubtedly quite capable of qualifiedly and aggressively representing Tkach's position in these denominational property matters. In fact, he could be retained as outside counsel to protect and enforce property rights of the Worldwide Church of God or on other potentially litigious matters.

Leaving the WCG denomination?

Evidently, Tkach is worried about his locally chartered churches leaving the WCG fold. Tkach takes the comforting position the WCG is hierarchically organized, with the Pastor General at the highest summit of the unincorporated church association board of elders pyramid he personally appoints, and whose votes he actually controls. The most analogous governmental hierarchy would be that the unelected, lifetime Pastor General is in some ways the equivalent of the elected Pope in the Roman Catholic church. Reading between the bylaws made public and briefs filed, Tkach is taking the position the denominational hierarchy (meaning Glendora HDQ) are ultimately the real owners in fact of the real estate and personal property of the locally chartered WCG church. Should a locally chartered church decide to disaffiliate itself with the WCG, Tkach believes all of the real estate, buildings and personal property the local church accumulated ultimately belongs to the WCG and must be returned to the control of the Pastor General. Supporting this notion of WCG property rights over the local ministry, a motion for leave to file brief of amici curiae on behalf of the WCG filed in the circuit court of Fairfax County states, quoting the motion filed, "The Worldwide Church of God is a hierarchically organized Christian denomination of churches with hundreds of congregations located throughout the United States. Like other such denominations, it has an interest in protecting denominationally owned or controlled property in circumstances where a local group chooses to leave the denomination."

The amici curiae brief argues the Virginia Statute on Religious Division, Va. Code 57-9(A), is constitutionally violative of the First Amendment by requiring civil courts to conduct and extensive inquiry into, and then resolve, fundamentally religious questions. It also takes the position 57-9(A) could not withstand constitutional review should the court apply a strict scrutiny standard of constitutional review to the statute, within bounds of the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment.

The amici brief can be read in full here. Regardless of how the Fairfax County Circuit Court cases are resolved initially, it will likely be appealed up to the highest courts willing to grant such a hearing; and with Tkach hoping to feather his own nest, by using his WCG bank account dollars to help finance more church litigation to his own favor.


nelson said...

thanks for keeping track of this.
Is it possible that the statute of limitations has not run on Tkach's acquisition of wwcg cash and property?

More importantly, just how much treasure is there?

Also, is this is a federal or a virginia case?

Thanks for all you do Stan!

Stan said...

>>Is it possible that the statute of limitations has not run on Tkach's acquisition of wwcg cash and property?

If anything, the WCG has been hemorrhaging millions of dollars in lost income each year for more than a decade, selling real property and other assets to raise cash to try to balance out the total loss of donations and members. Tkach should not possess title to any WCG bank accounts, property or other WCG assets directly in his personal name as an individual. Many, if not most of the WCG property assets and bank accounts are titled in the name of the WCG California corporation, so that the Church can have all of the convenience and protections of doing business as a corporation. Access to WCG corporate asset accounts are through those corporate officers authorized to oversee approved dollar transactions on those accounts, such as the WCG treasurer. Although primarily corporate, there may be some significant hidden assets owned, controlled and titled through either Ambassador College, Ambassador Foundation, disaster fund, retirement fund for the ministry, or other affiliate or subordinate entities controlled by the WCG unincorporated church Association.

The Tkachs amended the WCG bylaws without a member vote, changing the terms under which church assets may be distributed in the event that church as we know it ceases to exist. When that occurs, once outstanding debts are paid, the Tkach amendment gives the Pastor General exclusive ability to control the assets and to assign them to an entity of his choice. The control of any remaining assets go first to Tkach Jr., to be held in trust for the Church of God unincorporated Association; failing that, then individually to the members of his Council to be held in trust; failing that, then to an organization Tkach gets to personally select, failing that, then to Ambassador College (which is currently active in California - not incidentally).

More importantly, just how much treasure is there?

If you mean the Episcopal church, the Episcopal church publishes a detailed budget annually, along with the salaries of those in charge over the church.

If you mean the WCG, Tkach continues to run the church like his own secret society, fraternity, or clan, where only some of his inner circle get to know the facts. So, in truth, it is difficult to tell how much cash has been hoarded with any degree of certainly. If anyone in the WCG has been issued a copy requested of the very oft promised financial statements by the WCG treasurer, Ambassador Reports would gladly publish a complete copy of the WCG financial reports so anyone could “follow the money” to their own satisfaction, without all members having to make an individually approved private request to Glendora. We're not holding our breath expecting a copy of the promised financial report to the members will turn up, either.

The WCG treasurers have done an excellent job for Tkach of obfuscating the balance sheet, income and expense statements, and any monetary “treasure” reserves of the WCG. It is difficult to make any overall assessment of the continuing financial viability of the WCG, with the confusing, uninformative, bewildering reports called “Treasurer's Updates” in the WN or subsequent formats, which are becoming of late more and more infrequent. One thing that is known, with the exodus of the membership and shrinking donations, the WCG Titanic continues to sink below the waves as an ongoing operation, with plenty of excess cash flow to squander on such projects as the Ambassador Center at Azusa. It does appear, however, there is enough money remaining for the Tkachs to travel on church-expensed worldwide junkets to Europe and Africa with their retinue and photographer for as long as they want, as often as they want.

>>Also, is this is a federal or a virginia case?

The property dispute has both state and federal constitutional law components. Although California is not required to follow Virginia state law, it could very well set an important legal precedent regarding ownership and control of church property at the state or federal level. The property of these churches in Virginia are not the only property at stake in the Episcopal church in the United States. It is happening across the country in other jurisdictions, as various Episcopal churches want to breakaway and form other alliances more doctrinally compatible with their more conservative beliefs. While the WCG does have some churches in Virginia of course, the case is beginning to take on legal significance for all hierarchical churches with authoritarian governance structures such as the WCG who have a national council that wants to continue to control the real estate and other property of their local churches.