Group says Virginia 's ban on church incorporation violates free exercise of religion and right to equal protection under U.S. Constitution.The ACLU of Virginia has filed an amicus brief in Lynchburg federal court supporting Rev. Jerry Falwell's challenge of a Virginia constitutional provision prohibiting religious institutions from incorporating. The ACLU claims that the ban violates the free exercise of religion and the right to equal protection under the law.
Virginia is the only state in the nation that bans incorporation by religious institutions (other than West Virginia, which was still part of Virginia at the time the provisions were adopted). Virginia churches are governed by trustees appointed by Circuit Court judges.
Virginia law also places restrictions on the amount of land a church may own. Falwell challenged this provision in his lawsuit, but the court dismissed those claims on legal technicalities that are now under appeal. The ACLU hopes to be able to argue in court that Virginia's land restrictions are also unconstitutional.
The Virginia Senate passed a measure this year that would have repealed the land limitations, but it was ultimately subsumed by the original House bill that merely defines how religious institutions may use the land they own.
"The State of Virginia had good intentions when it decided not to allow the General Assembly to incorporate churches," said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis. "It did not want a political body deciding which religious institutions would be allowed to incorporate and which ones would not. That would hardly be a good start for the still novel concept of religious freedom. "
"But that was long before the modern administrative process for incorporation," added Willis. "The old law placed in the modern context discriminates against religious institutions by denying the same opportunity to incorporate as other similar institutions."
A copy of the ACLU amicus brief is available on request.
Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia Rebecca Glenberg, Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia 804-644-8022