[Episcopal News Service] In a complex ruling Aug. 2 the South Carolina Supreme Court said that most but not all the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina congregations whose leaders left the Episcopal Church could not continue to hold on to the church property.
The justices said 29 of the congregations specifically agreed to abide by the “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.
Episcopalians in South Carolina have been reorganizing their common life since late in 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.
“We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it. We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the church,” South Carolina Bishop Provisional Gladstone B. “Skip” Adams III said in a letter to clergy and lay leaders after the ruling was issued.
“This is a lengthy and detailed ruling, and our legal team and leadership will be studying it closely in the days ahead. It is important to note that the legal system allows for periods of judicial review and possible appeal, so it will be some time before we can say with certainty what the journey ahead will look like.”
Adams later issued a pastoral letter to all local Episcopalians, saying “I am aware that coming to this day has been painful for many, and some you of lost much along the way.”
“In that same vein, please be aware that this decision is painful in a different way for others. I ask that you be measured in your response without undue celebration in the midst of your own gratefulness,” he added, asking for prayer for people who chose to align themselves with the breakaway group.
“Healing is our desire, and we renew our commitment to the hard work of reconciliation in whatever form it can come,” he said.
The Lawrence-led group said after the ruling came down that its legal counsel is “reviewing the ruling, its implications and deliberating the appropriate response.”
The group later issued a lengthier statement in which it said its legal counsel believes the lead opinion and the concurring ones are “inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent involving church property disputes.”
The group is continuing to review what the statement called a “lengthy and complicated ruling” that includes separate opinions from each of the five justices, the statement concluded.
The parties have 15 days to decide whether to ask for a rehearing.
The breakaway group filed suit in January 2013 against the Episcopal Church. The diocese came into 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 court took more than two years to issue its ruling.
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 77-page state Supreme Court ruling, which includes opinions from each of the justices, is here.
The two groups are also involved in a separate federal case filed under the Lanham Act, claiming that Lawrence is committing false advertising by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese. The Lanham Act governs trademarks, service marks and unfair competition. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in February 2017 sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Charleston for another hearing.
– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is senior editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 3 to recast the headline and add additional comments.