South Carolina judge issues ruling contrary to state Supreme Court decision in church property case

Posted Jun 19, 2020

[Diocese of South Carolina] South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson, tasked in November 2017 by the South Carolina Supreme Court with a remittitur to enforce the final judgment of the Supreme Court, which ruled in August 2017 that the diocesan property and 29 parishes should be returned to the parties affiliated with The Episcopal Church, issued an order on June 19 that seems to be contrary to the Supreme Court’s decision.

In his order, he ruled that the properties instead belong to each congregation, using the application of the neutral principles of law. His order indicates that the historic Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has no interest in the properties of the breakaway congregations that left the historic diocese and The Episcopal Church.

While the August 2017 final judgement of the South Carolina Supreme Court was based on a finding that these specific diocesan properties had acceded to the 1979 Dennis Canon, Dickson found no explicit accession existed. As noted in the order, the 1979 Dennis Canon states the following:

“All real and personal property held by or for the benefit of any Parish, Mission or Congregation is held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof in which such Parish, Mission or Congregation is located. The existence of this trust, however, shall in no way limit the power and authority of the Parish, Mission or Congregation otherwise existing over such property so long as the particular Parish, Mission or Congregation remain a part of, and subject to this Church and its Constitution and Canons.”

In his opinion with the majority in August 2017, Supreme Court Justice Costa Pleicones noted that a failure to recognize the “ecclesiastical nature of this dispute” would “impose a requirement that each local church must specifically accede to the Dennis Canon before it can be bound. Such a requirement entangles the civil court in church matters, for The Episcopal Church’s Canons specifically provide that ‘no such action shall be necessary for the existence and validity of the trust.’”

Dickson’s on June 19 appears inconsistent with that final judgement. However, representatives of the diocese remain positive about the future. “This is not a final decision; it is yet another step on a long journey to full reconciliation within our diocese,” said Diocesan Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale Jr.

“While we are understandably disappointed that Judge Dickson has not enforced the Supreme Court’s decision as directed, we are hopeful that the South Carolina Supreme Court will hear the matter promptly and correct any errors that exist in today’s order,” said Tisdale. “Our legal team has already begun working on a formal response to this order that will be filed in the near future.”