U.S. Supreme Court asked to review South Carolina property decision

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Feb 14, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] The leaders of a group that broke away from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina have asked the United States Supreme Court to review a state court ruling that property, assets and most of the diocese’s parishes must remain with the Episcopal Church.

The petition for a writ of certiorari asks the court to consider “whether the ‘neutral principles of law’ approach to resolving church property disputes requires courts to recognize a trust on church property even if the alleged trust does not comply with the state’s ordinary trust and property law.”

The breakaway group said Feb. 13 that the majority of the South Carolina Supreme Court justices “unquestionably did not take this ‘neutral’ approach.” Because, the group said, at least eight states have adopted what it calls “the less than neutral interpretation,” the U.S. Supreme Court ought to consider the case.

The group said it anticipates the court will decide before the end of its current term in June whether to accept the petition for review.

Episcopalians in South Carolina have been reorganizing their common life since late 2012, after then-Bishop Mark Lawrence and a majority of clergy and lay leadership said that the diocese had left the Episcopal Church. They disagreed with the wider Episcopal Church about biblical authority and theology, primarily centered on the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina noted on its website that the petition had been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court but offered no comment.

A writ of certiorari asks the Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling. Filing a writ does not mean the high court will agree to take the case. The court receives more than 7,000 petitions and accepts between 100 and 150 cases, according to information from the federal court system. The Supreme Court usually agrees to consider cases that could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal circuit courts and/or could have precedential value.

Litigation surrounding the 2012 break has been multileveled and very contentious. The Episcopalians chose to call themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina in early 2013 in response to a temporary restraining order that prevented them from using the diocesan seal and the names “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” “The Diocese of South Carolina” and “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

That issue has not yet been settled and the breakaway group calls itself the Diocese of South Carolina.

The breakaway group filed suit in January 2013 against the Episcopal Church. The diocese entered the lawsuit later. After a three-week trial in July 2014, Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein ruled in February 2015 that the breakaway group had the right to hold onto the diocesan name and property, including individual church buildings.

The state Supreme Court agreed in April 2015 to consider the case. The remaining Episcopalians offered in June 2015 to let 35 parishes keep their church properties, whether or not they choose to remain part of the Episcopal Church.

In exchange, the proposal required the breakaway group to return the diocesan property, assets and identity of “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina” to the diocese that is still affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The breakaway group rejected the offer the day it was made public.

The court took more than two years to issue its ruling, which came Aug. 2, 2017, and was against most of the breakaway group’s claims. The justices said 29 of the congregations specifically agreed to abide by the Episcopal Church’s “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4), which states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church. That agreement means they cannot retain church property. However, they said that eight congregations had not agreed to the canon and thus could keep those properties.

The diocesan St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island must also be returned to the Episcopal Church.

On Nov. 17, 2017, the court denied the breakaway group’s request that it reconsider its ruling. The group said Nov. 21 that it would ask the nation’s highest court to review the state high court’s decision.

That same day, the group also filed a new lawsuit in the same county court in which it began its original lawsuit. The new filing in Dorchester County cites a “betterments statute” to seek compensation from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina and the Episcopal Church for the cost of improvements made to the properties over the years, according an announcement from The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

The Episcopalians in December asked the state court in Dorchester County to dismiss the new action.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.


Comments (3)

  1. Ron Caldwell says:

    The basic issue between the two sides has been settled by the SC supreme court. The majority of the court ruled (Aug. 2, 2018 and reaffirmed Nov. 17, 2018) that the Episcopal Church and the Church diocese hold trust control over 29 of the 36 parishes in question. Since then, the independent diocese has used three tactics in a strategy to of delay the implementation of the decision: 1-use of federal court ordered mediation. The federal judge ordered this on Aug. 30. Three meetings have taken place over five months with no sign of progress; 2-the independent diocese filed a new lawsuit in state circuit court claiming payment from the Church side under the “betterments statute.” The Church diocese has asked the court to dismiss this as a frivolous lawsuit; 3-the independent diocese’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, made Feb.9, 2018. In addition, there is an ongoing federal lawsuit (U.S. District Court in Charleston) in which the Church bishop is suing the breakaway bishop claiming trademark infringement under the Lanham Act. In short, the Church is asking the federal court to recognize the Church bishop as the legitimate bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. This case is on “stay” pending the outcome of the mediation. Trial is expected later this year. Even if the Church diocese prevails in federal court, the breakaway side can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals gaining another year or more of delay. Altogether, the litigation between the Church side and the independent diocese could continue for another several years.

  2. Ron Caldwell says:

    News update. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina announced today that federal Judge Richard Gergel has lifted the stay in the case before him. It had been on stay since Aug. 30, 2017, as part of a mediation process. This means the federal case of VonROSENBERG V. LAWRENCE will proceed in the U.S. District Court, in Charleston. The Church side is arguing that Lawrence is in violation of federal trademark laws as he claims to be the legitimate bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. It appears that a trail in the federal court will be held later this year.

  3. BD Howes says:

    I’ve heard this story before. My “SC” defended it’s trademark against South Carolina infringement in 2010. Maybe it’s a South Carolina thing. Fight On!

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