Previous ENS coverage about South Carolina is available here.
[The Episcopal Church in South Carolina] Acting to protect the identity of the diocese he serves, the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg filed suit in U.S. District Court today against Bishop Mark Lawrence, asking the court to declare that only vonRosenberg, as the bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church, has the authority to act in the name of Diocese of South Carolina.
Having renounced The Episcopal Church, Bishop Lawrence is no longer authorized to use the diocese’s name and seal. By doing so, he is engaging in false advertising, misleading and confusing worshippers and donors in violation of federal trademark law under the Lanham Act, the complaint says. It asks the court to stop Bishop Lawrence from continuing to falsely claim that he is associated with the Diocese of South Carolina, which is a recognized sub-unit of The Episcopal Church.
The suit does not address property issues directly. But by asking the federal court to recognize Bishop vonRosenberg as the true bishop of the diocese, the suit would effectively resolve the issue of who controls diocesan property and assets, including the Diocesan House and Camp Saint Christopher on Seabrook Island. The ownership of individual parish properties is not addressed in the complaint.
“The intention of this suit is straightforward. We are asking the court to determine who is authorized to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina,” Bishop vonRosenberg said.
The Episcopal Church is a “hierarchical” church, meaning that it is governed by a common authority, the General Convention, with regional bodies – dioceses – that are subordinate, and individual parishes and missions that are subordinate to their dioceses. The hierarchical nature of The Episcopal Church has been recognized in multiple U.S. Supreme Court cases as far back as 1872.
Under the First Amendment, the designated authorities in a hierarchical church have the authority to determine how church controversies are resolved, not civil courts. The complaint cites two United States Supreme Court decisions: Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevic (1979) and Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (2012).
In October 2012, after a Disciplinary Board of The Episcopal Church found Bishop Lawrence had engaged in conduct “constituting abandonment of The Episcopal Church by an open renunciation of the Discipline of the Church,” the Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori, restricted Bishop Lawrence from exercising his ministry until the House of Bishops could investigate the Disciplinary Board’s findings and act. In response, Bishop Lawrence announced that he and the diocese had disassociated from The Episcopal Church, withdrawing its accession to the church Constitution.
On December 5, the Presiding Bishop accepted Bishop Lawrence’s renunciation of ministry in The Episcopal Church. Left without a bishop, local Episcopalians worked together to reorganize and carry on the diocese. On January 26, the Presiding Bishop convened delegates of the remaining TEC parishes and missions at a special convention. They elected Bishop vonRosenberg as their provisional bishop, acting under the Constitution and Canons of The Episcopal Church. Now, only Bishop vonRosenberg has the right to act as the Bishop of the Diocese, the lawsuit says.
Just before that convention, the breakaway group headed by Bishop Lawrence filed suit in South Carolina Circuit Court against The Episcopal Church, and were granted a temporary injunction banning the remaining Episcopalians from using the name of the diocese. That injunction remains in effect.
The order by Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein forced local Episcopalians to temporarily adopt a working name for their diocese so they could conduct business without violating the injunction. At their special convention they chose the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina” to use until the issue can be resolved.
In explaining the hierarchical nature of the church, the suit notes that a person ordained as bishop must promise to “guard the faith, unity and discipline of the Church” and to “share with [his or her] fellow bishops in the government of the whole church.”
The Diocese of South Carolina throughout its history has acted as a subordinate unit of The Episcopal Church, sending representatives to General Convention as recently as 2012, participating in the Church Pension Fund, and conducting business following TEC procedures. And it has held itself out to the public as the official representative of The Episcopal Church in eastern South Carolina.
Representing Bishop vonRosenberg in the federal civil action are:
- Matthew D. McGill of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Washington, DC.
- Palmer C. Hamilton and George A. LeMaistre, Jr. of Jones Walker, Mobile, AL.
- Thomas S. Tisdale and Jason S. Smith of Hellman, Yates and Tisdale, Charleston, SC. Mr. Tisdale is Chancellor of the Diocese.