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Diocese of South Carolina: Another court reversal

St Philip’s, Charleston, built in 1835. 

Photo: Sue Careless

(Staff)  AFTER FIVE LONG years of litigation there has been yet another court reversal concerning the Diocese of South Carolina.

In 2012, the theologically conservative Diocese along with 50 of its congregations voted to disassociate from The Episcopal Church (TEC). It has been involved in a complicated dispute over its name, leadership and property ever since.

The Diocese of South Carolina, which dates back to 1785 and is older than The Episcopal Church itself, was the fifth to secede over the national church’s liberal stance on various scriptural issues.

The Diocese fears any transition of ownership to TEC would ultimately leave historic churches – including Charleston landmarks–to sit empty or be sold. Others worry about the amount of money The Episcopal Church has spent in litigation costs – by some estimates, $40 million in South Carolina alone.

The Diocese of South Carolina is a member of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and is recognized by Anglican Dioceses and Provinces around the world, many of which have broken fellowship with The Episcopal Church. 

On Aug. 2 in a sharply divided ruling consisting of five separate opinions, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that parishes that had “acceded” to the national church’s ‘Dennis canon’ are subject to a trust interest in their property by The Episcopal Church (TEC).  Only eight congregations were judged to have full rights to retain their property.

The Diocese aligned with the Episcopal Church – the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (ECSC) – largely prevailed in August in a highly fractured ruling by the South Carolina Supreme Court.

In a decision that partly reversed the February 2015 Circuit Court ruling of Judge Diane Goodstein, the S.C. Supreme Court significantly changed court precedents in multiple areas and divested the property rights of at least 28 congregations and over 20,000 church members.  

The ruling declares that 29 local parishes cannot take their properties with them and must return them to the Episcopal Church. However, the breakaway diocese can continue to use its name, seal and symbols.

A lower court decision in 2015 granted the conservative Anglicans “all their property, including churches, symbols and other assets,” worth half a billion dollars.

Citing significant departures from both state and federal precedents, the Diocese of South Carolina and 29 parish churches on Sept. 1st filed a motion for rehearing in the South Carolina Supreme Court regarding its Aug. 2nd ruling.

While there are multiple legal issues in the ruling, some of the most crucial are the constitutional ones controlling cases of religious property.  As stated in the petition:

“[T]hese South Carolina religious organizations…in the free exercise of their religion…chose to disassociate, exercising their right of association under the United States and South Carolina Constitutions which this Court has recognized.  Yet, according to the majority, that constitutionally protected decision, requires a massive transfer of centuries old real and personal property when it would not be required for a secular South Carolina organization.”

The petition concluded that “These are serious issues for Respondents, Appellants and for all religious organizations in South Carolina. This Court should grant a rehearing.”

The ACNA Diocese filed another motion that could turn out to be more consequential: to vacate the decision of Supreme Court Justice Kaye Hearn and recuse her from any further participation in the case.

The motion describes Hearn and her husband as lay leaders of an unsuccessful attempt to keep their local church from leaving The Episcopal Church. When their church decided to leave and align itself with ACNA, the Hearns were part of a group that launched a new Episcopal church in the community. Hearn’s opinion in the Supreme Court case was in favour of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

In another development, Federal District Judge Richard Gergel  has recommended mediation as a way of settling the dispute and the parties involved have agreed in principle.

“It should be noted, however,” said Joy Hunter, a spokeswoman for the ACNA Diocese, “that TEC has never, in the 80 plus cases litigated nationwide, agreed to a settlement – even when it was requested. Our present priority is to focus on consideration of the crucial Constitutional issues presented in our filed motions for Rehearing and for Recusal.”   TAP



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