US Supreme Court refuses to hear South Carolina Episcopal Church property case

Breakaway group vows to continue legal fight

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jun 11, 2018

[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 in 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 in response to the denied request. “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 and to hear information and discuss plans for the months ahead.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.


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Comments (28)

  1. S.R.Price says:

    Can’t imagine anything left to resolve on the property issue except who is responsible for replacing assets that the Court has ruled were being held in trust for the benefit OT the Episcopal Church and have been misappropriated by the trustees for some other purpose.(see definition for embezzlement)

  2. Doug Desper says:

    Those “breakaway” churches were supposedly going to be “just a few who don’t want to be with us”. Fifteen years and millions of litigation dollars later, that “few” has grown to tens of thousands who have announced that following behind the culture to validate and bless its demands is tedious and tiresome, and contrary to a Gospel mandate to announce Good News and repentance.

    Our General Convention continues to paint the Church into a corner, particularly by jettisoning the present Prayer Book teaching which affirms the marital bond of 1 man/1 woman. Now that Marriage has been unanchored from Matthew 17/Genesis 2 to accommodate the culture, what will the Church say when 3 people want to marry? It’s already a cultural trend out there. General Convention is about to set fire -again- to the already dry timbers of the Church to validate another human itch and bless cohabitation (adultery for those followers of the Ten Commandments). Cohabitation? Sure. Did Christ call us to validate culture or to challenge and transform it? It’s an honest question to ask, “Who are the real ‘breakaways’? Those who change doctrine to validate cultural trends, or those who have been loyal to Church teachings as found in our present Book of Common Prayer?”

    Two-thirds of our present members on the rolls are just sitting it out each week as our Average Sunday Attendance shows. Somehow I sense that when the Church just mimics a fallen world that its members see nothing much to get excited about.

    1. Bruce Garner says:

      The “property and assets” is not and never has been The Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has always been the people who sought to follow the teachings of Jesus and love their neighbor as they love themselves without exception or exemption. The breakaway folks have never learned this. They want to exclude people when that was never the intent of Jesus in His teachings.

      The true irony here is that this really isn’t about the things it is purported to be about, such as faithfulness to the Scriptures, the BCP, the so-called teachings of the church. It has always been about the power and control Lawrence and many of the clergy who followed him want to exercise over not just property, but how people think and worship and relate to each other. That has NEVER been the polity of The Episcopal Church. The very ability to ask questions, difficult questions, is what drew me away from the theological tyranny of the Southern Baptist Church over 50 years ago. This particular group of old white guys just can’t grasp the concept that they do not get to control things just because of their race and gender….not anymore. Getting these little boys to share is a daunting process.

      So Mark et al, why don’t you return what was never yours to take and let both “sides” of this get back to some effort of GOING OUT and spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ instead of waiting for people to come to us in our nice buildings…that is the real reason for our decline in numbers and that of many mainline churches. People are no longer coming to us. Our funerals out number our baptisms. And thus we shrink.

      Jesus told the 70 to go OUT. He told the 12 to go OUT. At His ascension he told those looking to go OUT into the world. He never said sit in the pew and wait for them to come to you. We built it but they ain’t coming!

      Time to move on with the Jesus Movement!!

      1. mike geibel says:

        “This particular group of old white guys just can’t grasp the concept that they do not get to control things just because of their race and gender….not anymore. Getting these little boys to share is a daunting process.”

        This doesn’t sound like the message of “love” preached by Bishop Curry at St. George’s Chapel. It sounds rather “smug” — like someone hates old white men.

        The Supreme Court is not a court of “error” but may choose which cases to hear and which not to hear. Many of petitions for hearing are filed, but few are accepted as involving an important Constitutional or legal issues that needs to be addressed by the Court.

        The property lawsuits across the nation are all about “money.” The lawsuits have nothing to do with “gender justice,” “old white men” or “love.” The results of the property rights litigation is decided based upon secular property law. Jesus’ teachings or doing what is just or moral is irrelevant to the Justices.

        Congregants must learn that in the Episcopal Church, while they may own the soul of the Church, the sanctuary structures are not theirs, but legally belong to the local Bishop, usually as a “Corp Sole,” to do with as he sees fit, regardless of the fact that it was their money, their faith and their efforts that built and maintained the local church. Churches can be sold out from under a congregation, and the loved ones resting in the columbarium relocated or returned, just as Bishop Bruno tried to do in Newport Beach, California.

        The TEC is legally in the right in SC as well as in California and other states. Predictions of its demise are premature, since the Church now has many empty buildings to convert to cash to fund its agendas. Political activism is a thirsty beast.

        Is the TEC morally and theologically in the right? That is a different question.

        1. Bruce Garner says:

          As the “old white man” who wrote the above, I stand by it. It isn’t that I don’t love these people at all. They are, from my experience with most of the “breakaway” groups, only interested in maintaining control that was theirs solely by virtue of gender and race. There are few women clergy in any of the breakaway groups and a tiny number of anyone of color. The world is changing. Those we are to serve in the name of Christ has changed. And like it or not, the organization of our part of the Jesus Movement does indeed vest ownership in all church property at the churchwide level. Someone above noted that we act like curators. The moral question to me is whether we should continue to dump thousands of dollars a year into virtually empty buildings while not addressing the needs of those who live within the shadows of those buildings? I think that is contrary to the teachings of Jesus. It is certainly poor stewardship of God’s resources. What some call political activism, others see as working toward bringing the beloved community into being where all of God’s children are the equals in our eyes that they are in God’s eyes. So, yes, as an old white guy, we should not be in any position just on the basis of our gender and race. We ought to be there to be a voice of prophesy bringing the love of God to those who truly thirst.

  3. william dailey says:

    If there is one church doctrine that is coming thru loud and clear it is “It’s our property so move out!” This is an immutable position unlike all others concerning church doctrine.

  4. Rose Anne Grasty says:

    After 81 years, I continue to be look for the teachings of Jesus that tell us that some people should be excluded from the family of God.

    1. Bruce Garner says:

      Amen my sibling in Christ, AMEN! I’ve been looking as well. I am convinced that no matter how hard we look, that is not a doctrine we will find in His teachings. So simple yet so overlooked.

      Thank you for posting that.

  5. Christopher Buser says:

    The Supreme Court made the right decision.

    1. S.R.Price says:

      The Supreme Court decision may turn out to be meaningless unless the Church attorneys are very aggressive in followup.The dissident Bishop’ s defiant statement yesterday indicates he believes he has enough political power with the Dorchester County court charged with enforcing the decision to tie things up indefinitely in more litigation.SCEpiscopalians website reported that judge is a former member of the law firm repressing Lawrence..

      1. S.R.Price says:

        The word repressing is a misprint.The correct word is representing.Quite a difference in meaning.

  6. The Rev'd Canon H. Milton Cole says:

    The Episcopal Church in Maryland, Virginia,New York South Carolina and beyond is truly blessed to have had the Gospel laden prophecy and leadership of The Rt. Rev Skip Adams for over three and a half decades. Thank you Skip, my ministry and those that I have served are better because of your ministry.

  7. S.R.Price says:

    Bruce Garner hit a home run in his analysis of why TEC is shrinking.Sometimes we act more like the curator of a historical museum rather than those charged with ” go ye therefore into the world”.Look for a radical change in that sitback mindset to emerge from this General Convention and this presiding Bishop.Episcopalians in tents and street corner revivals? Don’t bet against it!!

  8. Doug Desper says:

    No one has ever been able to explain why revisionists keep getting to move the goal posts to accomplish what they perceive as truth. Truth is not subjective, but received. Secondly, since when does “respecting the dignity of all persons” equate to submitting to whatever is demanded? The Jesus Movement….the one recorded in the Gospels …. never defined the Good News like that. People, even sincere ones, sometimes walked away from Jesus both disappointed and unaffirmed. That such a possibility rarely occurs in the Episcopal Church should give pause to what we call The Jesus Movement.

    1. Matt Ouellette says:

      Wait, you think people haven’t walked away from TEC feeling disappointed and unaffirmed? What do you think this court case was all about?

  9. Charles Towne says:

    There is a place for us. It’s called the Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter. Check out ordinariate.net. Biblical truth. Anglican roots. It’s who we really are and our only genuine hope in all this mess.

  10. John Hobart says:

    The Presiding Bishop goes to celebrity weddings to talk about love while the rest of us wear our hatred on our sleeves. Maybe it is time we gave it a rest.

  11. Philip Jones says:

    I wish those involved in these dispute would look to the example of Bishop Shannon Johnston in Virginia. Bp Shannon has shown far more charity to our schismatics than I can muster. 1. The Supreme Court NEVER hears these cases, for good reason. Secular courts in the US will never settle questions of church law. 2. General Convention is not some outside agency who interferes in local affairs. General Convention is US. It is the Episcopal Church. Our schismatic friends act like a bunch of petulant school kids. You knew what the rules were when you signed on. Now you want to change them. In church history things change, because we discern we been doing it wrong. Otherwise we would be praying to St Ambrose’s hip bone. 3 If you like our Prayer Book so much where were you in 1979 when you found it outrageous?

  12. W. Lewis says:

    Anger,bitterness,name calling, worshiping objects( buildings). I can’t for the life of me understand why young people don’t want to join us and become followers of Jesus.

  13. cynthia seddon says:

    I left the Episcopal church,because nowhere in scripture do I find marriage between same sex people to be the will of God. I do not hate homosexuals, but when my bishop ruled that clergy were to perform marriages between them, I could not stand by and agree.The presiding bishop may preach love,but love of God demands obedience to His laws.

    1. S.R.Price says:

      I think people sometimes confuse ancient Hebrew civil law with the law of God.Unless it’s recorded as coming frothed actual Gospel message of Jesus in Matthew,Mark,Like,or John I approach it with an open mind

      1. Doug Desper says:

        Try this, S.R. It’s not ‘Hebrew civil law’, but from the mouth of our Lord, what we could rightly consider the law of God: (By the time of Jesus humanity had tried every kind of bond and relating other than 1 man/1 woman. That original design of marriage had devolved into polygamy, concubines, and howls to be divorced, which Moses granted to the people. Jesus observed this human-created mess and when questioned about divorce took the moment to give a further elaboration about what marriage should be (Matthew 19:4-8). Hold on, though, because Jesus quotes word for word from Genesis 2 to return us….underline that….return us to the original design of human bonding found in the first pages of Scripture:

        4) “Haven’t you ever read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ 5) and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6) So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no man separate.” 7) “Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” 8) Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning”.

        This teaching on Marriage was entirely omitted from the Episcopal Marriage Study. Odd, that a Jesus Movement would exclude Jesus. Odd that one of the few times that Jesus quoted and elaborated the Scripture would be left out in answer to the important question of our time on what a valid marriage is in God’s design.

        Excuses are made that this is a new time and that Jesus would understand us not being confined to the original design of Genesis 2 and that its OK to liberalize and bless what Jesus never did. What a plank to walk! Twice Jesus established what was right by returning to the time of “the beginning”. If the Lord returned humanity of his time to original design of 1 man/1 woman then woe be to those who declare that He was in error and that they know much better.

        1. S.R.Price says:

          By omitting the preceding 3 verses you have managed to turn a denunciation of heterosexual divorce into a condemnation of homosexual relationships,something Jesus was not doing here.This kind of ” twist” is one reason the Episcopal Church has decided on a position of neutrality on the issue of same sex relationships.

  14. Doug Desper says:

    S.R., regardless of the setting for the teaching (a question about divorce), it remains that Jesus clarified the God-ordained pattern of bonding: 1 man/1 woman. The operative measure is what was in “the beginning”. Our meddling and adaptation of that twice-affirmed truth is an error.

    1. S.R.Price says:

      In other words,Doug,you can’t find anything from Jesus condemning same sex relationships.I can’t either.His acknowledgement of the first relationship between Adam and Eve does not constitute a condemnation of things he was not even asked for an answer on.Again,you’ve got to do the “twist” and put words in Jesus’s mouth to get to that conclusion from this example.Meanwhile back to the theme of this thread,the real Bishop of South Carolina,Skip Adams,outlined a plan for integration of the breakaway parishes back into the Episcopal Church at a meeting of Diocesan and parish leaders Tuesday.He also reported that people including vestry members from the disassociated parishes had established contact with him.Things are starting to happen.

  15. Doug Desper says:

    S.R., it appears that you are making an argument for marriage revision from the silence of Jesus. The contrary is much more solid; that He reaffirmed the original design by quoting Genesis 2. We are often being told that the Spirit is doing a new thing. I don’t sense that the Holy Spirit will bring contradiction and confusion. If we believe that the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church today, then how much more so during the time of the original apostles, since Jesus promised to them that He would guide them in all things? That witness is found in the New Testament scripture. If our bishops believe in Apostolic Succession, then that means that the faith is passed on from the apostles and their experience of God through the Holy Spirit’s leading. It is without doubt that same gender marriage was not a part of the life of the apostolic age, and the successors to the apostles must be very careful to claim that the Holy Spirit is now contradicting that witness. Secondly, if we believe, as stated in the Creeds, in the Lordship of Christ we will be on sure ground to rely on the certainty of His re-affirmation of original design in Genesis 2.

    In short, Scripture and Apostolic Tradition are not with those who have redesigned marriage, and I find it strange that Matthew 19/Genesis 2 were entirely left out of the Marriage Study, which weakens its credibility.

    That said, I believe that gay folks have a welcome and vital place in the Church, but cannot demand what we cannot grant. That marriage is God’s original and first institution means that it has been designed perfectly.

    1. S.R.Price says:

      Some agree with your reasoning,some don’t.(By the way I personally don’t think gay marriage is a good idea for gay people.Copying another culture’a institutions rather than creating your own is not always the best path).If one adhere’a to your concept of marriage,then any sexual contact that is not for the purpose of propagating children is an abomination inside or outside of marriage,which takes us back to the divisive debate in our Church in the 1930’s over birth control..Sorry,not going there with you.Meanwhile,back at the Oasis the legitimate Bishop of S.Carolina has outlined a reasonable game plan for bringing the disassociated parishes back into the real Diocese of S.Carolina and reported that lay leaders in some of the parishes including vestry members are beginning to establish contact.

  16. Does seem to me that the problem with the American Church is ‘individualism’. While I understand that it is important for us to stand on our own two feet…we also belong to each other.
    The word ‘ catholic’ means more than anything else our togetherness…WE are the Body of Christ. I am not the body…I am the stupid toe that turns left instead of right…the Body helps me to belong …even though I may be malformed…I still belong…and don’t require that everyone conforms to my malformity

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