Lawsuit seeks to recognize vonRosenberg as bishop of South Carolina

Posted Mar 6, 2013

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.


Comments (16)

  1. Steven Long says:

    This is a matter of state jurisdiction. The Feds will throw this back to the state courts. Nice try, but a waste of money; however, the Dragon Lady doesn’t care.

    1. Mike Lawlor says:

      Ignoring your intemperate reference, let it be clear there are many of us in the Anglican Communion who care deeply that Bishop von Rosenberg will be successful in this endeavour.

    2. Danny L Anderson Jr says:

      You are not even recognized by The See Of Canterbury and not in Communion with Canterbury, yet you still call your selves Episcopalians and Anglicans … Name calling is not something Jesus would do . If you want to leave than by all means do so , but you cant take what is not yours with you .

    3. Vance Mann says:

      I am really surprised at the name calling that is going on by those who have left the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. Where is that mature, adult faith that Jesus talks about?

  2. Deacon Tom Williams says:

    another of the finest hour of the leadership of the Episcopal Church.

  3. Chris Walchesky says:

    Not looking good for TEC at all. Oh well. The lawsuits had a good run.

  4. walter combs says:

    Chris, you are right. Anyone familiar with South Carolina law knows this will probably not go well for TEC Unlike what usually happens in other states, SC is a different animal and we will probably lose out. I’m really ashamed that my church is ready to spend enormous amounts of money much better used for other purposes to attempt to seize properties that are destined to remain with those who have chosen to leave us. Seems really vendictive to me.

    PCUSA has shown much more Christian charity to departing congregations by being willing to negotiate settlements. Can’t we do the same?

    1. Zachary Brooks says:

      I’m familiar enough with South Carolina law to know that the law of the United States, which rules overwhelmingly in favor of national Churches, applies in South Carolina. Just like the canons of the Episcopal Church apply in the Diocese of South Carolina, no matter what the bishop says.

  5. Ronald Caldwell says:

    Christians bringing lawsuits against each other is a scandal, but here we are anyway. It was the Lawrence diocese that started this with its Jan. 4 suit in state court claiming all legitimacy as the Episcopal diocese including the property. They compounded this with continually adding co-signers and by getting two restraining orders against the ongoing Episcopal diocese between Jan. 4 and Feb. 1. TEC had little choice but to react legally in the best way they knew how. We are now awaiting the response of the federal court judges in Charleston.

    The Lawrence side might take comfort in the fact that they filed first on the claim of legitimacy. Their suit to the legal rihts of the diocese is already pending in the state court. Too, they got a court order to prevent vonRosenberg and his diocese from using the names of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, something that vonRosenberg did in the suit he just filed in the federal court. It is possible the federal fudges will stand down in favor of the previous court actions in January.

    The vonRosenberg side might take comfort in the fact that their action is in federal court claiming jurisdiction of federal law and citing in the complaint federal laws and cases. On the whole, courts around the country have overwhelmingly ruled what vonRosenberg is claiming, that the Episcopal Church is an hierarchical institution with a right to manage its own structure. Not a single one of the four earlier breakaway dioceses finally prevailed in court. One was settled for TEC and the others are pending on appeal.

    Indeed, the only court case in the country that was finally settled on the side of a breakaway group against the Episcopal Church diocese was All Saints Waccamaw (Pawley’s Island). Ironically, the Lawrence diocese is counting on this to be their fire wall and save them in the end. Since that case was not heard in federal court, however, no one knows what will happen if the issue goes to federal court. But if I were a betting person, I should not bet against TEC.

  6. walter combs says:

    Those here who want to talk about lack of Christian charity and name calling, let’s not forget that our Presiding Bishop did some of that recently. Comparing Bishop Lawrence to terrorist and the Sandy Hook shooter. Wow! Don’t know about you but I think our leadership could show a little more restraint and lot more civility.

    1. Zachary Brooks says:

      No, she didn’t. This is one of those false accusations that seems true merely because it is repeated so often, and it’s yet another scandal in this matter that Christians are willing to believe it.

      1. Ronald Caldwell says:

        You are right Zachary. She never mentioned Lawrence by name or in any other way. I was present when she spoke. Her theme was decision making and respecting rules in the context of community. Her references to people who act outside the rules were generic but she did give examples. She never mentioned Lawrence. People who hate her will see whatever they wish in her remarks. This is a reflection of their own minds, not hers.

        1. walter combs says:

          Oh, please! We all knew to whom she was referring. She didn’t have to mention him ‘by name’. This is the kind of bunk that makes me question whether I should continue in TEC. I don’t hate the PB but even I knew and everyone else with common sense knew to whom she was referring.

          1. Zachary Brooks says:

            Read the whole sermon- she’s actually warning the true Diocese against certain attitudes which she sees as harmful in its decisions about its future course. She went on to say “What are those of you in this Diocese going to do in your interactions with those who’ve departed? Are they law-breakers who should be shot down or thrown in jail? Do we see them as vigilantes? Neither is going to produce more abundant life, my friends. When you meet them out there in the pasture, consider that some of the sheep may think they’re listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd. Some are also simply exhausted.”

          2. Nicholas Forde says:

            Bravo Mr. Combs! At least someone hear knows and can speak the truth.

  7. Joseph F Foster says:

    Anybody who was baptized in the Episcopal Churc h before 1982 did not take that particular vow because it was not a part of the baptism rite. Therefore it was not a part of the vows agreed to renew at a person’s confirmation. Take a look at the baptism in the 1928 PB and contrast it with the 1982. Rather different.

Comments are closed.