Petition to SC Supreme Court seeks enforcement of church property decision

Posted Mar 20, 2019

[The Episcopal Church in South Carolina] The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC) and The Episcopal Church today filed a petition asking the South Carolina Supreme Court to order the Dorchester County Circuit Court to enforce the high court’s 2017 decision and return control of diocesan property and 29 parish properties to The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, TECSC.

The Petition for Writ of Mandamus asks the high court to require Circuit Judge Edgar W. Dickson to take action and execute the decision that the justices remitted to Judge Dickson 16 months ago.

The disputed properties currently are under the control of a group led by Bishop Mark Lawrence that left The Episcopal Church in 2012 and then sued the church in an attempt to keep the property. The delay in enforcing the high court’s decision is continuing to cause harm to TECSC, the petition says.

“The extraordinary remedy sought [a writ of mandamus] is therefore necessary given the long delay and misdirected undertaking of the Circuit Court to attempt to revisit the merits, while the property to which Petitioners are entitled is being wasted, misused, and depleted,” the petition says.

“That property includes unique real estate, historic buildings, and artifacts that cannot be replaced, along with accounts held in trust that are being depleted as this litigation is being improperly prolonged,” the petition says.  With no action taken by the court on requests for enforcement, “petitioners have no adequate remedy other than to seek a writ from this Court.”

The state Supreme Court issued a decision in August 2017 to return the diocesan property and 29 parishes to the Episcopal parties. In November 2017, that decision was remitted to Judge Dickson to be executed. The Episcopal Church and TECSC have filed motions asking the court to return the property and assets, and have also requested a full accounting.

No action has been taken on those requests. To date, the court has held one scheduling conference and one hearing on a motion for “clarification” filed by the breakaway group.

The petition filed today emphasizes that the state Supreme Court sent the decision to the Circuit Court on “remittitur” rather than on “remand.” A remittitur means the circuit court “has a duty to follow and enforce the mandate from [the Supreme Court’s] final and dispositive decision.”

“The Circuit Court has unduly delayed and appears to be reconsidering the case on its merits, exceeding its jurisdiction on remittitur,” the petition says.

Attorneys for the breakaway group have told Judge Dickson that that decision is too unclear to be enforced. However, the petition notes that the breakaway group repeatedly acknowledged that the decision was final in the legal documents they filed trying to get the decision reversed: First when they asked the state Supreme Court for a rehearing, and again in their unsuccessful petition to the United States Supreme Court.

For example, in their petition for rehearing to the state Supreme Court they stated about the ruling: “As a result, the majority would transfer the real and personal property of South Carolina religious organizations” to The Episcopal Church. The high court, in denying the rehearing, expressly stated that “the opinions previously filed in this case reflect the final decision of this Court.”

Under South Carolina law, a petition for a writ of mandamus has to meet four criteria, and the petition spells these out and notes how each condition has been met:

  • A duty of the court to perform the act.
  • The “ministerial” nature of the act, a legal term meaning that it is directly commanded by law.
  • The petitioner’s specific legal right for which discharge of that duty is necessary – in this case, the right to the diocesan and parish property awarded by the Supreme Court ruling.
  • A lack of any other legal remedy.

Parishes whose property is subject to the Supreme Court’s August 2017 ruling are:

All Saints, Florence
Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
Christ-St. Paul’s, Yonges Island
Church of the Cross, Bluffton
Epiphany, Eutawville
Good Shepherd, Charleston
Holy Comforter, Sumter
Holy Cross, Stateburg
Holy Trinity, Charleston
Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston
Church of Our Saviour, John’s Island
Redeemer, Orangeburg
Resurrection, Surfside
St. Bartholomew’s, Hartsville
St. David’s, Cheraw
St. Helena’s, Beaufort
St. James, James Island
St. John’s, John’s Island
St. Jude’s, Walterboro
St. Luke’s, Hilton Head
St. Luke and St. Paul, Charleston
St. Matthew’s, Fort Motte
St. Michael’s, Charleston
St. Paul’s, Bennettsville
St. Paul’s, Summerville
St. Philip’s, Charleston
Trinity, Edisto Island
Trinity, Pinopolis
Trinity, Myrtle Beach