Episcopal Church in SC removes state lawsuit to US District Court

April 4, 2013

[Episcopal Church in South Carolina -- Press Release] The Episcopal Church in South Carolina has filed to remove the state lawsuit filed against it to the U.S. District Court, citing statutory and constitutional issues that need to be addressed by the federal court. The Episcopal Church is also a defendant in the suit and has consented to the removal to the federal court.

The suit, originally filed in South Carolina Circuit Court in Dorchester County by a group that is breaking away from The Episcopal Church, now moves entirely  to the federal court system, according to Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which is remaining part of The Episcopal Church.

“We have carefully examined the claims made against The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and inherent in all these claims are federal statutory and constitutional issues that must be decided in a federal court rather than in South Carolina state court,” Mr. Tisdale said.

The plaintiffs, who include a group representing itself as “the Diocese of South Carolina” along with 35 parishes, now have 30 days to respond to the notice of removal. They could seek to have the case remanded to state court, and a federal judge would then have to decide where the case will be heard.

“The federal court, we believe, is the appropriate forum for all the issues involved in these matters to be decided,” Mr. Tisdale said.

The breakaway group filed the state suit January 4 seeking control of diocesan and parish property as well as the name, seal and other marks of the Diocese of South Carolina. On January 23, at a hearing held without notice to Episcopal Church leaders , Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein issued a temporary restraining order that barred anyone other than the breakaway group  from using the diocese’s official names. To comply with a similar consent order issued thereafter, the local Episcopal Church diocese has been using a working name, “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.”

Mr. Tisdale said that the case involves issues of trademarks, names, false advertising and other matters that are governed by the federal trademark law known as the Lanham Act.  It also raises broader issues under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution governing free exercise of religion.

Other legal action

Meanwhile, in a separate case already before the U.S. District Court, the attorneys for the breakaway group filed a motion on Thursday, March 28 asking the court to either dismiss the case or issue a stay that would put the federal complaint on hold until the state courts can rule on their Circuit Court suit.

Their motion involves a federal lawsuit filed March 5 against Mark Lawrence by the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, who is recognized by The Episcopal Church as the bishop of the diocese. Bishop Lawrence announced in October that he and the diocese were “disaffiliating” from The Episcopal Church.  In December, the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, announced that Lawrence had renounced his orders and was removed from the ordained ministry of the Church. Local Episcopalians elected vonRosenberg as their bishop at a special convention held January 26.

The federal suit asks the court to stop Bishop Lawrence from continuing to hold himself out as bishop of the diocese, saying his actions violate the Lanham Act, confusing and misleading worshipers and donors and harming the reputation of the diocese.