[Episcopal News Service] The United States Supreme Court refused June 11 a petition by a group that broke away from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina asking it to review a state court ruling that said property, assets and most of the diocese’s parishes must be returned to the Episcopal Church and its recognized diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
The petition for a writ of certiorari from a group that broke away from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina asked 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 in its Feb. 13 petition that the majority of the South Carolina Supreme Court justices did not take the “neutral” approach.
The high court justices discussed the case (17.1136) during their June 7 conference and denied the request without comment on June 11.
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 a lawsuit in 2013 seeking to control diocesan and parish properties, and a Dorchester County court found in their favor in 2015. The state Supreme Court overturned that decision in August 2017. It was the latter ruling that the group asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review.
“We are grateful for the clarity that this decision offers, and hopeful that it brings all of us closer to having real conversations on how we can bring healing and reconciliation to the church, the body of Christ, in this part of South Carolina,” Episcopal Church South Carolina Bishop Provisional Gladstone B. Adams III said in a statement after the denial.
“Our path continues to be one of reconciliation and love, for love is the way of Jesus,” he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision does not immediately change the physical control of the properties, according to diocesan Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale Jr. The state court must enforce the ruling.
However, the breakaway group, which calls itself the Diocese of South Carolina, has vowed to continue the legal fight. “The diocese remains confident that the law and the facts of this case favor our congregations,” the group said. “We plan to continue to press both to their logical conclusion, even if that requires a second appearance before the South Carolina Supreme Court.”
In the same statement, Lawrence expressed disappointment, but added “our hope remains steadfast in our heavenly father.
“There are many unresolved legal questions which remain before the State Court as well as matters for prayerful discernment as we seek to carry out the mission to which we are called in Jesus Christ. We shall seek his guidance for both.”
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina said in its statement that it and the Episcopal Church asked the state court May 8 to place diocesan property and assets under control of local Episcopalians, hand over ownership of property of the 28 affected parishes to the Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and appoint a special master to oversee the transition.
The Episcopal Church has been hoping to engage with leaders of the breakaway group since the state Supreme Court ruling in August, according to the statement. Adams and other diocesan leaders have been seeking direct contact with people in the affected parishes, offering a “Frequently Asked Questions” publication and arranging individual meetings to work with those who want to remain in their home churches as Episcopalians.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina’s Standing Committee, Diocesan Council, Trustees of the Diocese and deans, will meet June 12 for prayer, hear information and discuss plans for the months ahead.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.