Episcopal Church parties in South Carolina seek summary judgment in federal lawsuit

Episcopal Church in South Carolina
Posted Dec 10, 2018

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC) and The Episcopal Church have asked the U.S. District Court to grant motions for summary judgment and call a halt to the “pervasive” public confusion caused by a group that broke away from the church, yet continues to use Episcopal names and marks.

The motion asks U.S. District Judge Richard M. Gergel to prohibit false advertising and the use of confusing names and marks by the breakaway group and its affiliated churches. A motion for summary judgment is a request for the court to rule that the other party has no case, because there are no facts at issue.

“The public confusion resulting from Defendants’ conduct is pervasive,” according to a memo filed by TECSC on December 7 in support of the motion. “It is undeniably causing irreparable harm to The Episcopal Church, and more locally, to TECSC and its Bishops. All that the Plaintiffs seek in this action is declaratory and injunctive relief, not damages (for which they could easily make a case).”

The lawsuit, known as vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, was filed in March 2013 by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, who was the only bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina at that time. Bishop vonRosenberg retired in 2016, and his successor, Bishop Gladstone B. Adams III, was added as a plaintiff in the case. The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, TECSC, also joined the case as plaintiffs.

In April, Judge Gergel ordered the expansion of the lawsuit, adding as defendants to the case the diocesan organization and trustees who are operating under Bishop Mark Lawrence, and the 54 parishes that followed him after the 2012 split. Those groups have been operating under the names “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina” and “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina,” and the confusion created by that is one facet of the trademark infringement and false-advertising claims. The court has set a target date of March 1, 2019 for a trial to begin.

The federal case is aimed primarily at resolving federal trademark infringement and false-advertising issues raised by the split. In a separate case, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in August 2017 that property of the diocese and 29 parishes must be returned to The Episcopal Church and TECSC. That decision resulted from a state lawsuit filed by the breakaway group in 2013 against The Episcopal Church and TECSC.

The memo filed December 7 by TECSC cites the state Supreme Court’s 3-2 ruling that TECSC, not the group led by Mark Lawrence, is the true Episcopal diocese in the eastern half of South Carolina.  According to the memo, TECSC has the right to all the diocesan names and marks, including the historic seal of the Diocese of South Carolina.

“The use of all of the diocesan names and marks, and the goodwill that arose from such use over many years, inured to the one and only historic diocese at issue. That goodwill in the diocesan names and marks cannot be divvied up, pursuant to the following well-established principles of trademark law,” the memo says.

The Episcopal Church filed a separate Motion for Summary Judgment and a supporting memo on December 7. “Defendants have purported to disaffiliate from the Church, but continue to use the names they used when they were part of the Church and/or continue to hold themselves out as belonging to the ‘Episcopal’ diocese led by the ‘Episcopal’ bishop. These actions are not only likely to cause confusion, but, as we detail below, have caused confusion over and over again,” the memo says.

Defendants in the breakaway group also have filed counterclaims and motions with the federal court in connection with the case.