U.S. Supreme Court asked to review South Carolina property decision

February 13, 2018

[Episcopal News Service] The leaders of a group that broke away from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina have asked the United States Supreme Court to review a state court ruling that property, assets and most of the diocese’s parishes must remain with the Episcopal Church.

The petition for a writ of certiorari asks the court to consider “whether the ‘neutral principles of law’ approach to resolving church property disputes requires courts to recognize a trust on church property even if the alleged trust does not comply with the state’s ordinary trust and property law.”

The breakaway group said Feb. 13 that the majority of the South Carolina Supreme Court justices “unquestionably did not take this ‘neutral’ approach.” Because, the group said, at least eight states have adopted what it calls “the less than neutral interpretation,” the U.S. Supreme Court ought to consider the case.

The group said it anticipates the court will decide before the end of its current term in June whether to accept the petition for review.

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 Episcopal Church in South Carolina noted on its website that the petition had been filed with the U.S. Supreme Court but offered no comment.

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.

Litigation surrounding the 2012 break has been multi-leveled and very contentious. The Episcopalians chose to call themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina in early 2013 in response to a temporary restraining order that prevented them from using the diocesan seal and the names “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” “The Diocese of South Carolina” and “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”

That issue has not yet been settled and the breakaway group calls itself the Diocese of South Carolina.

The breakaway group filed suit in January 2013 against the Episcopal Church. The diocese entered 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 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.

The court took more than two years to issue its ruling, which came Aug. 2, 2017, and was against most of the breakaway group’s claims. The justices said 29 of the congregations specifically agreed to abide by the Episcopal Church’s “Dennis Canon” (Canon 1.7.4), which states that a parish holds its property in trust for the diocese and the Episcopal Church. That agreement means they cannot retain church property. However, they said that eight congregations had not agreed to the canon and thus could keep those properties.

The diocesan St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island must also be returned to the Episcopal Church.

On Nov. 17, 2017, the court denied the breakaway group’s request that it reconsider its ruling. The group said Nov. 21 that it would ask the nation’s highest court to review the state high court’s decision.

That same day, the group also filed a new lawsuit in the same county court in which 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.

The Episcopalians in December asked the state court in Dorchester County to dismiss the new action.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.

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