South Carolina diocese asks state supreme court to intervene

Diocese’s motion aims to prevent further delays to adjudication of core issue: Property ownership

The Diocese of South Carolina today asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to intervene in an appeal filed “primarily for the purpose of delay” by The Episcopal Church (TEC) and its local subsidiary, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC).

TEC’s appeal challenges a lower court ruling on the process both sides may use in discovery leading up to a trial that will decide whether the denomination may seize South Carolina property, including churches and the diocesan symbols. The diocese argues that TEC is appealing a court order that is “unappealable”.

“[TEC and TECSC] are misusing the judicial system to delay resolution of this case,” says the diocese’s request for Supreme Court action. “Their strategy of appealing an interlocutory order is evidence of that intent. This is the same strategy that caused eight months to be wasted at the start of this case in federal court where they asked the federal court to override the state court injunction.”

The diocese argues that TEC’s legal shenanigans are designed solely to “interfere with the purpose of a speedy and inexpensive resolution.”

TEC and TECSC have repeatedly sought to delay action on the core legal issue.  After the suit was initially brought by the diocese to protect local property, TEC and TECSC had the matter removed to federal court where a judge ultimately decided the issue was more appropriate for South Carolina state courts.  That same judge called the denomination’s federal action “procedural fencing.”

TEC and TECSC sought to expand the number of parties in the case to include lay members of the diocese, a move rejected by a state court judge.  Then the denomination moved the federal court to reconsider its decision to dismiss the Federal case against Bishop Lawrence.  Yesterday, a notice of appeal was filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

In his ruling on that motion, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck said, “It appears [TEC] Bishop [Charles G.] vonRosenberg is using the motion to express his disagreement with the Court’s ruling and to ‘rehash’ previously presented arguments. … As such, Bishop vonRosenberg’s motion is improper and reconsideration is not justified.”

The diocese’s court filing effectively asks the state Supreme Court to hear TEC’s appeal in order to get a definitive decision from the highest judicial authority in the state, effectively closing the door to further delays-by-appeal.

“We are disappointed in TEC’s appeal, but it does not surprise us,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese.  “The Episcopal Church has a long history of dragging out legal battles in hopes of draining the resources of parishes and dioceses it seeks to punish for leaving the denomination.  The fact that The Episcopal Church has spent about $30 million on litigation in the past few years demonstrates the priority it assigns to such punishments.  In fact, this threat of legal retribution has prevented many parishes and dioceses from leaving the denomination, which long ago abandoned historic scriptural positions and beliefs that have been the foundation of Anglicanism since its start. We pray that The Episcopal Church recognize that these resources could be far better spent spreading the word of God than by obstructing fair judicial action.”

The state court case is scheduled to go to trial in July. 

The Diocese of South Carolina disassociated from the Episcopal Church in October 2012 after TEC tried to defrock Bishop Lawrence. Following the Diocese’s decision, 49 churches representing 80 percent of the Diocese’s 30,000 members voted to remain in union with the Diocese and not with TEC.

The Diocese has consistently disagreed with TEC’s embrace of what most members of the global Anglican Communion believe to be a radical fringe scriptural interpretation that makes following Christ’s teachings optional for salvation.

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