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Episcopal Church seeks to add Mark Lawrence, 3 others, to property lawsuit

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina filed a motion today in Circuit Court to have Mark Lawrence and three other individuals added as parties in the lawsuit filed by the breakaway group that is seeking legal control of the Diocese of South Carolina.

The four, who were officials of the diocese when it announced its separation from The Episcopal Church, are necessary parties to the suit because actions they took to “withdraw” the diocese from TEC were outside the scope of their legal authority and violated state law, according to documents filed with the First Circuit Court of Common Pleas in Dorchester County.

The breakaway group filed suit in January against The Episcopal Church, seeking control of the diocese and all its assets. The group contends that under a legal precedent known as “neutral principles of law,” the court should consider only South Carolina corporate law, not religious law, in deciding control of the diocese, treating the organization like any other non-profit corporation. 

But even if neutral principles are applied, the actions taken by the individual diocesan leaders were illegal and could not have the effect of withdrawing the diocese from TEC, according to the documents filed Monday. 

The filing lists 18 causes of action against the four individuals, including breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, conversion, trademark infringement and civil conspiracy.

The individuals named in the motion are:

•   Mark Lawrence, who was bishop to local Episcopalians from 2006 until December 2012, when the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church accepted his renunciation as a bishop of TEC. Members of the breakaway group still recognize him as their bishop.

•   Jim Lewis, who was Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, and continues to use that title in the breakaway organization.

•   Jeffrey Miller, who has been president of the Standing Committee of the diocese. Miller also is rector of St. Helena’s, Beaufort, one of the congregations that filed suit against TEC.

•   Paul Fuener, who has been president of the Standing Committee. Fuener also is rector of Prince George-Winyah in Georgetown, another plaintiff in the suit against TEC.

According to the TECSC motion, evidence produced in the discovery process of the lawsuit so far has revealed “numerous personal and individual ultra vires, fraudulent, and intentional unlawful acts.” “Ultra vires” is a  Latin term meaning “beyond powers,” and describes acts that are beyond the scope of powers granted under corporation law.

Filed with the motion on Monday was a proposed pleading, listing the claims TECSC plans to make against the parties if they are joined to the suit. According to the pleading, the individuals’ actions were part of a scheme to withdraw the diocese from The Episcopal Church, beginning as early as 2006 when Lawrence was still under consideration to become bishop of South Carolina, and assured church officials that he did not intend to withdraw the diocese from TEC.

As ordained individuals, Lawrence, Lewis, Miller and Fuener all took vows to adhere to “the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church,” and TEC relied on those promises in granting them authority in the diocese. But beginning around 2009, the four began executing a conspiracy to take away the assets of the diocese and “deprive Episcopalians loyal to the Episcopal Church of their property rights” by manipulating the corporate entity of the diocese, according to the proposed pleading.

The diocese’s corporate entity was formed in 1973, following a state Supreme Court decision that changed the charitable immunity doctrine regarding churches. For the next 37 years of its existence, the corporate entity of the diocese did not adopt bylaws, hold corporate meetings, elect officers or function as a corporation; it existed only as a “corporate embodiment of the ecclesiastical operation of the diocese,” to provide a shield against personal liability. 

But in 2010, a series of changes were made to the corporation, many done during improper executive sessions, for the purpose of later withdrawing the diocese from The Episcopal Church. These actions did not comply with either the corporate charter or the state Nonprofit Corporations Act, according to the proposed pleading.

Those actions led up to the events of October 2012, when the Standing Committee approved a resolution to “disaffiliate” from TEC and announced its withdrawal from the church. “Any and all authority that any of those individuals had in the past to act for the Diocese or its corporate entity of The Trustees was extinguished from that day forward,” and actions since then, including the November 2012 “special convention,” have no legal effect.

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