The Supreme Court of South Carolina has reached a decision in a two-year old case concerning a property dispute in Charleston, S.C. between a breakaway diocese and The Episcopal Church.
This highly anticipated ruling from the S.C. Supreme Court declared on August 2, 2017 that 29 parishes, whose congregations left The Episcopal Church five years ago, cannot take the church properties and land with them. They can however continue to use the name, seal, and symbols.
The recent ruling involved around 50 churches and 20,000 parishioners, and set a precedent in the area that could change the historic churches in the area.
The Original 2012 Lawsuit
This legal battle began in 2012 when Bishop Mark Lawrence and almost 2/3 of parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina left the national church after continued arguments and disagreements were a regular occurrence. Finally, after several years of issues ranging from differences on governance powers, gay rights, and even scriptural interpretations, the parishes left the national church and are now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America. This group, formed in 2009, is known to be an alternative to The Episcopal Church.
Upon their departure, the Diocese of South Carolina, along with 18 parishes brought a law suit against the national church in an effort to keep control of the diocese’s name, symbols, and over $500 million in properties. At the time of the court date, the number of parishes grew from 18 to almost 36 in the lawsuit.
First Amendment Religious Protections
The issue at hand in this case is about whether S.C. civil law overrides a hierarchical national church’s own principles that are guarded by the First Amendment’s religious protections.
In 2014, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the parishes did have the right to leave the church’s jurisdiction, and also had the right to take the Diocese of South Carolina name as well as the church properties with them. Judge Goodstein based her ruling on the South Carolina “neutral principles,” which override the canons and constitution of the church.
These neutral principles apply contract, trust, civil, and corporate laws to disputes such as these instead of letting the hierarchical church’s internal rules apply. The main issues of the case asked whether the breakaway group took the proper actions according to S.C. nonprofit laws to separate from the nation church. It also questioned whether the national church held parish properties in trust.
Judge Goodstein’s ruling was an issue of debate among the state supreme court justices. Some justices agreed with the judge’s ruling, however, others claimed that Judge Goodstein based her ruling solely on neutral principles and that she was incorrect when she indicated she was required “to ignore the ecclesiastical setting in which these disputes arose.” The error in the understanding of this law is said to be a “distorted view of the issues in this case.”
In 2015, the S.C. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case directly, and bypass the state appellate court concerning the dispute, which had been ongoing for three years. The August 2nd ruling, indicating that the 29 parishes cannot take the church properties with them.
The Future of the Church
In 2015, a lower court decision gave the conservative Anglicans “all their property, including churches, symbols, and other assets,” that was worth an estimated half a billion dollars. The breakaway diocese rejected a settlement attempt from the Episcopal Church offering to let the conservative bunch keep their physical properties, but not their intellectual property. The Anglicans refused the offer.
The recent ruling completely reversed the previous decision and has changed the future of the church. The reversal included opinions from all five justices, and was determined by the Dennis Canon, an Episcopal church law giving ownership of parish property to the local diocese as well as the national church. The justices ruled that even after the diocese decided to leave the denomination, only churches that had not “acceded” to the Dennis Canon had any rights to the property. This allows seven parishes and a land trust that can keep their properties because they never had a written agreement to let the national church hold them in trust.
The bishop of the Episcopal Church in S.C. Skip Adams said of the decision, “We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it. We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the church.”
“The diocese has indicated that it will continue to review the “lengthy and complicated ruling.”
~ 1776 Christian