Opponents in South Carolina dispute hope for unity — once their legal battle is over

06 October 2017

Joy Hunter/Diocese of South Carolina

Mover: the Bishop of the breakaway diocese, the Rt Revd Mark Lawrence

Mover: the Bishop of the breakaway diocese, the Rt Revd Mark Lawrence

THE breakaway Diocese of South Carolina, which is locked in a legal battle with the Episcopal Church in the United States over the right to keep its property, is prepared to take the conflict to the national Supreme Court if its request for a rehearing is not granted, a representative of the Diocese has said.

The Diocese left the Episcopal Church in 2012 after years of disagreements over issues including the ordination of openly gay clerics. The parties have since been entangled in a bitter dispute over the right of the congregations of the breakaway Diocese to retain their identity and property, including 29 parish churches valued at $500 million.

In August, the state’s Supreme Court overturned portions of a ruling from 2015 that the Diocese could keep church property, and retain its name. In February 2015, the Circuit Court Judge, Diane Goodstein, had ruled that the separated diocese had the right to leave, and rejected the Episcopal Church’s argument that it had legal interest in the diocese’s property (News, 13 February 2015).

The South Carolina Supreme Court said in a complex 77-page ruling that those parishes that had “acceded” to a canon law, known as the Dennis Canon — which states that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership of the Episcopal Church if its assets are “trusted” in the national body — did not have full rights to retain its property. Only the seven congregations which had not acceded were judged to have these retaining rights.

The Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of South Carolina, the Revd Jim Lewis, explained on Monday: “Justices decided that, if a parish of the diocese had ever acceded to the governance of the Episcopal Church in written form, then that was considered good enough to qualify as having agreed to the Church having a trust interest in their property. We based our actions on the All Saints’, Pawley’s Island, case back in 2009, which established the precedent that the Dennis Canon did not have effect in the state of South Carolina.”

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The Supreme Court of South Carolina (overturning a decision by a lower court in 2003) ruled that the property and assets of All Saints’, Pawley’s Island, could follow the vestry into the breakaway diocese (News, 2 October 2009).

The Provisional Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, the Rt Revd Gladstone “Skip” Adams, continues to disagree. He said on Wednesday: “The US Constitution is clear that a church is free to govern itself without interference from the government. People are free to exercise free will and leave a church — even as that may be painful for all of us. But to my mind they cannot lay hold of the property or name of the church they chose to leave.”

The Episcopal Church states on its website that the August ruling “upholds the Episcopal Church’s position that it is a hierarchical church, rather than a congregational one in which a vote within a church congregation can override church law and polity. [The Dennis] canon requires that church properties be held in trust on behalf of the diocese, to be used for the benefit of the Episcopal Church.

“In many cases, these properties were the results of gifts made by Episcopalians over many years, given with the intention that they remain with the Episcopal Church. In defending itself against the lawsuit filed by the breakaway group, Episcopal Church leaders were charged with a duty to protect the assets of the Church from being removed and used for other purposes.”

The breakaway Diocese has since filed for a rehearing of the state case on the grounds that a brief filed by the Episcopal Church, allegedly giving evidence of accessions to the Canon, had “no basis” in the record of the court in five years of proceedings. “In their 300-year records of St Philip’s Episcopal Church, the mother church of the Diocese, the only thing ever acceded to were the articles of religion. That’s it,” Mr Lewis says.

The Rector of St Philip’s, Charleston, the Revd Jeff Miller, said on Wednesday: “Religious freedom in these cherished, sacred spaces dating back to 1680 will be denied, and these properties taken away. This freedom will be denied, not because tens of thousands of parishioners have changed their beliefs, but rather because they have not.”

The Diocese is also asking for a recusal of one of the four justices, Justice Kaye G. Hearn, for “bias and conflict of interest”, since she is a member of a congregation of the reformed Episcopal Church in South Carolina (so named in 2013 to prevent the Church from assuming the identity and symbols of the breakaway Diocese during the legal process).

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In its 21-page reply, filed last month, the Episcopal Church asks the Court to dismiss the requests, however, calling them “wrong, rehashed, and untimely”, given that they had not been brought to trial previously. It again made reference to the Dennis Canon in its defence.

“The breakaways have left the Episcopal Church. They may not claim gifts or assets of the associated diocese of that Church. . . Justice Hearn’s opinion is legally sound and follows the overwhelming number of other jurisdictions. Her religious beliefs and those of her husband are not grounds for recusal.”

This was dismissed by the Diocese in a subsequent reply.

Both parties and their legal representatives met the Senior US District Judge, Joseph F. Anderson Jr, in Columbia SC, on Wednesday, to discuss dates and procedures for mediation among all parties in both the state litigation and a separate federal case, brought by the Episcopal Church, stating that the Diocese has engaged in false advertising. It was agreed that mediation should take place on 6 November for three days.

Despite five years of legal dispute, the issues that sparked it remain the same, Mr Lewis says. “All the areas of disagreement that we had with the national Church still exist, and probably more sharply. We have tried to be clear from the beginning about our disagreements over theology, polity, morality, and Church governance.

“Our decision ultimately to disassociate [was taken when it] became clear that there was no longer a place for us. Our evidence of that was an attempt to remove Bishop Lawrence as the diocesan bishop in the midst of what we were thought were good-faith conversations about how to resolve our conflict.”

The diocesan convention of South Carolina elected the Very Revd Mark Lawrence as its Bishop in 2007. A disciplinary board for bishops of the Episcopal Church ruled in 2012 that Bishop Lawrence had abandoned communion between the Church and his Diocese — and his ministry was restricted by the then Presiding Bishop, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori.

“We were forced out,” Mr Lewis said. “We had no other recourse at that point. If you remove and replace the bishop, you have essentially taken control of the diocese. What that effectively said was that the position we had taken as a diocese, and the differentiation that we had sought for actions of the Episcopal Church, was no longer going to be allowed.”

Though he is “guardedly optimistic” that the rehearing will be granted, the Diocese is prepared to elevate the fight if necessary. “The worst-case scenario would be if they denied all our requests and motions, and we would be left with the option to take our appeal to the US Supreme Court. We would prefer not to, but it is certainly a very viable option, given the nature of the constitutional problems with the ruling.”

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Whatever the outcome, both parties have expressed hope for reconciliation. “Everyone would like to have this behind them and focus on gospel ministry, and not have this ongoing distraction of time, energy, and resources’ continuing to weigh us down,” Mr Lewis said.

“But one of the realities of it is that the conflict is about who will have use of the resources for ministry that have been created by the generations before us specifically for doing the work of gospel ministry: these are powerful tools in the communities in which we live — that we can do gospel ministry without – but that are certainly a blessing to have, and consequently we will continue to defend them as long as is necessary.”

Bishop Adams said: “My desire is that we will follow the way of Jesus the Christ who taught us the way of forgiveness and reconciliation. That has been the goal of the continuing Episcopal Church all along.

“The only way I know how to do that is to be in conversation with one another. It is not lost on me that the word ‘conversation’ and the word ‘conversion’ have the same root. Once the legal issues are clearly settled in light of the recent decisions, many people of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina will join me in conversation with anyone who wants to engage us.”

The result of the request for a rehearing (submitted on 1 September) is pending.

 

SOUTH CAROLINA: A TIMELINE

1785

The Diocese of South Carolina is founded by the parishes of the former South Carolina colony.

1789

The Diocese becomes one of the nine founding dioceses of the Episcopal Church in the US.

2003-2006

Church leaders in the diocese begin to express disagreement over issues such as the ordination of partnered gay clerics, leading to the departure of some leaders. Eight dioceses pass resolutions requesting alternative primatial oversight.

2007

The diocesan convention of South Carolina elects the Very Revd Mark Lawrence as its Bishop, but he fails to receive the endorsement of a majority of bishops in the Episcopal Church (TEC). After a second election, he receives the required majority, having stated that he did not intend to break away (News, 9 August 2007).

2009

The Supreme Court of South Carolina (overturning a ruling from 2003) rules that the property and assets of All Saints’, Pawley’s Island, belong to the group that voted to leave TEC and join the Church of the Province of Rwanda and the Anglican Mission in America (News, 1 October 2009).

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2010

April The Diocese of South Carolina declares that the Presiding Bishop of TEC, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, has no authority to retain lawyers in the diocese, and demands that she withdraw them (News, 8 April 2010).

September TEC accuses the Diocese of removing references to it from the official name of the churches and websites of more than half its 44 parishes. Bishop Lawrence denies the claims (News, 29 September).

October The diocesan convention agrees six resolutions, which, it says, will “protect” it from intrusions from the broader Episcopal Church (News, 27 October 2010).

2011

October TEC accuses Bishop Lawrence of filing amendments to the corporate charter of the Diocese’s non-profit corporation, deleting all references to the Episcopal Church and obedience to its constitution and canons. It also says that he had “done nothing to stop other parishes which are outwardly moving in the direction of withdrawal” from TEC (News, 14 October 2011).

November A disciplinary board for bishops of the Episcopal Church rules that Bishop Lawrence had not abandoned communion between TEC and his Diocese (News, 2 December2011).

2012

October A second disciplinary panel is convened, and Bishop Lawrence has his ministry restricted by the Presiding Bishop, pending an investigation. The Diocese responds with a resolution threatening to “disaffiliate” from TEC, which is passed (News, 19 October 2012).

December The Presiding Bishop declares that Bishop Lawrence has been removed from the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church, and calls a diocesan convention to elect a new bishop and standing committee for the continuing diocese, made up of 12 parishes and congregations who wish to remain in the Episcopal Church (23 November 2012).

2013

January A lawsuit is filed in the South Carolina Circuit Court against TEC by two corporations claiming to represent the Diocese of South Carolina and some of its parishes, seeking a declaratory judgment that they are the sole owners of the property, name, and seal of the Diocese. This includes 29 parish churches, valued at $500 million (News, 11 January 2013).

A judge issues a temporary restraining order preventing the TEC diocese from using the name or symbols of the Diocese. It becomes the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC) to comply.

The Rt Revd Charles G. vonRosenberg is elected Provisional Bishop and immediately invested by the Presiding Bishop. A new standing committee and diocesan council are elected.

March Bishop vonRosenberg files a complaint in the US District Court against Bishop Lawrence, citing violations of the Lanham Act, a US federal law prohibiting trademark infringement and false advertising. The suit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, states that Bishop Lawrence is engaging in false advertising by representing himself as bishop of the Diocese.

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TEC also files its response to the breakaways’ lawsuit, saying that Bishop Lawrence and the Diocese have no authority over the assets or property of the diocese.

August More than 100 clerics are given notice of removal from the ordained ministry of the Episcopal Church by Bishop vonRosenberg, worded so that they can return in the future. (Three clerics have since returned.)

2014

A back and forth of appeals — to add four individuals, including Bishop Lawrence, to the breakaway lawsuit; and to include in the trial alleged correspondences before the suit between lawyers and parties. These are dismissed by Judge Diane S. Goodstein. She rules that the trial must begin on 8 July.

A 14-day trial is held in the Dorchester County Courthouse in St George, South Carolina, before Judge Goodstein (News, 8 August 2014).

2015

February Judge Goodstein rules in favour of the breakaway group, giving them the right to hold on to the name and property of the Diocese. The Episcopal Church appeals to the South Carolina Supreme Court (News, 13 February 2015).

March The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rules in favour of Bishop vonRosenberg in the federal false-advertising lawsuit, sending vonRosenberg v. Lawrence back to the US District Court in Charleston for another hearing. A US district court declines to hear the vonRosenberg v. Lawrence case until the state case is resolved, however.

June The Episcopal Church claims to offer a settlement allowing the disputed parishes to keep their church properties if the Diocese and trustees relinquished their names, identities, and all assets. The Diocese says that the offer did not come with authority to bind all parties on the Episcopal Church side, however, and that the counsel for the Episcopal Church did not sign the offer and provide the necessary proof of authority, as requested.

2016

Bishop vonRosenberg announces his retirement as Provisional Bishop. The Rt Revd Gladstone B. Adams III is elected and takes office in September.

2017

March The breakaway Diocese votes to join the Anglican Church in North America (News, 17 March).

August The South Carolina Supreme Court overturns portions of the ruling from 2015 stating that the diocese could keep church property and retain its name. It states that the Diocese must return the 29 parish churches, valued at $500 million, to the Episcopal Church (News, 18 August).

The federal case, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, is assigned to US District Court Judge Richard Gergel, and scheduled to proceed to trial in March next year.

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September Post-opinion motions are filed by the breakaway Diocese, seeking a rehearing and asking for recusal of one of the justices, Justice Kaye G. Hearn, for “bias and conflict of interest”. The Episcopal Church requests in its reply that the “wrong, rehashed, and untimely” post-motions are denied a re-hearing. The Diocese reaffirms its position in another reply. The court’s decision is pending.

October Both parties and their legal representatives meet Senior US District Judge Joseph F Anderson Jr. in Columbia SC to discuss dates and procedures for mediation among all parties in both the federal and state litigation. It is agreed that mediation will take place on 6 November for three days.

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