[Episcopal News Service] Litigation in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina apparently will continue, despite the state Supreme Court’s recent refusal to reconsider its August ruling that the property, assets and most of its parishes must remain with the Episcopal Church.
The latest attempt to overturn that ruling came late Nov. 21 with the announcement that the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to consider the state court’s decision. That announcement followed other news that another suit involving the property and assets has been filed.
Episcopalians in South Carolina have been reorganizing their common life since late 2012, after then-Bishop Mark Lawrence and a majority of clergy and lay leadership said that the diocese had left the Episcopal Church. They disagreed with the wider Episcopal Church about biblical authority and theology, primarily centered on the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church.
The breakaway group filed suit in January 2013 against the Episcopal Church. The diocese came into the lawsuit later. After a three-week trial in July 2014, Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein ruled in February 2015 that the breakaway group had the right to hold onto the diocesan name and property, including individual church buildings.
The state Supreme Court agreed in April 2015 to consider the case. The court took more than two years to issue its ruling, which came Aug. 2.
The remaining Episcopalians offered in June 2015 to let 35 parishes keep their church properties, whether or not they choose to remain part of the Episcopal Church.
In exchange, the proposal required the breakaway group to return the diocesan property, assets and identity of “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina” to the diocese that is still affiliated with the Episcopal Church. The breakaway group rejected the offer the day it was made public.
South Carolina Bishop Gladstone B. “Skip” Adams III on Nov. 19 welcomed what he called the clarity that the State Supreme Court’s decision provides the diocese, and he kept open the desire for reconciliation. “We believe this is what the Lord Jesus would expect of us and it is consistent with the teachings of St. Paul,” he said in a written statement. “We renew our commitment to this hard work of reconciliation in the days to come.”
That same day, the group that left the Episcopal Church filed their new lawsuit in the same county court where it began its original lawsuit. The new filing in Dorchester County cites a “betterments statute” to seek compensation from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina and the Episcopal Church for the cost of improvements made to the properties over the years, according an announcement from The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
“This new filing is not only completely without merit, but unfortunate and inappropriate. It moves us no closer to the kind of resolution that restores unity to our diocese,” South Carolina Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale said in that announcement.
Adams said in the announcement that he hoped that all the parties could work toward a common goal of reunifying and restoring the diocese.
“I appeal to the leaders of the disassociated group and their counsel to allow the people in the affected parishes to start having the necessary conversations with us to ensure that they can continue to worship in their churches. It is time to begin healing this division,” he said.
All parties in the case had previously agreed to mediation to work out how to implement the state Supreme Court ruling, as well as issues raised in a separate federal lawsuit. That mediation is scheduled to resume in Columbia, South Carolina, Dec. 4-5.
But, on Nov. 21, Lawrence announced that it was “with the weight of decision but conviction of heart and mind” that he supported his Standing Committee’s decision to petition for a writ of certiorari with the United States Supreme Court, asking it to review the case.
A writ of certiorari asks the Supreme Court to review a lower court ruling. Filing a writ does not mean the high court will agree to take the case. The court receives more than 7,000 petitions and accepts between 100 and 150 cases, according to information from the federal court system. The Supreme Court usually agrees to consider cases that could have national significance, might harmonize conflicting decisions in the federal circuit courts, and/or could have precedential value.
Lawrence depicted the appeal as a battle.
“All too soon, we were thrust into a battle for Religious Freedom,” he wrote.
“So, we have before us our commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ to which we are unwaveringly wedded; a civil concern for religious freedom for ourselves and others; and a public duty to petition for constitutional due process to be upheld,” he wrote. “Any of these might justify taking the next step down this legal road. Together they make a three-fold cord not easily broken.”
The two groups are also involved in a separate federal case filed under the Lanham Act, claiming that Lawrence is committing false advertising by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese. The Lanham Act governs trademarks, service marks and unfair competition. In February, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit sent the case back to the U.S. District Court in Charleston for another hearing.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.