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Judge rules Virginia's ban on church incorporation is unconstitutional

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) -- In a lawsuit brought by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a federal judge has ruled that an 18th-century Virginia law banning the incorporation of churches unconstitutionally restricts the free exercise of religion.

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ROANOKE, Va. (AP) -- In a lawsuit brought by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a federal judge has ruled that an 18th-century Virginia law banning the incorporation of churches unconstitutionally restricts the free exercise of religion.
U.S. District Judge Norman Moon ordered the State Corporation Commission to grant Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church a corporate charter.
The ban stems from Thomas Jefferson's 1779 Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. The General Assembly outlawed corporate charters for churches in 1787 and included the ban in the state Constitution.
"Unlike other groups in Virginia, members of 'a church or religious denomination' are ... denied the benefits of incorporation because of their religious status," Moon wrote in an opinion issued Monday.
In addition to the incorporation ban, Virginia churches are not allowed to own more than 15 acres of property in a city or town and 250 acres in any one county. Only West Virginia has similar restrictions.
SCC spokesman Ken Schrad said Tuesday he did not know whether the commission would appeal or grant Falwell a charter.
A charter would give Falwell's church added protection from liability lawsuits, the ability to sue as an organization and the power to enter contracts. It also would allow Falwell to include his entire ministry under one corporate umbrella; currently, it is controlled by a dozen or so mini-corporations under separate charters and boards of directors.
Falwell said his ministry has grappled with Virginia's restrictions since the 1950s.
"The worst part has been that the church has had to go before a circuit court judge for every business transaction," Falwell said in an interview. "It's not been something we couldn't deal with, but it has been very burdensome."

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