Report on the tenth day of trial from the Episcopal Church in South Carolina
Dr. Walter Edgar, South Carolina’s renowned historian, author and radio host, was sworn in a witness at 10:20 a.m. but didn’t get to utter his first word of testimony until about 1:45 p.m. as attorneys for the plaintiffs of the breakaway group threw up objection after objection, trying to prevent him from describing the longstanding connections between The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina.
Nevertheless, in the following three hours Dr. Edgar presented the court with a wealth of research demonstrating that the diocese has historically acknowledged the authority of The Episcopal Church, took care to conform to national church law, accepted financial support from church-related institutions, and participated in beneficial programs such as the Church Pension Fund.
Attorneys for the two defendants (The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina) admitted into evidence thousands of pages of documents that were supplied by the plaintiffs themselves, including official journals of diocesan conventions throughout history. Dr. Edgar reviewed those documents and others in his research. Some highlights of his testimony:
• The diocese first acceded to the Constitution and Canons of the General Convention (the governing body) of The Episcopal Church by adding that accession as Article I of its own constitution in 1841. That passed unanimously, and continued almost uninterrupted through 2009.
• The exception was the Civil War.The 1862 General Convention nevertheless included the names of the Confederate States’ dioceses in the roll call, and noted them absent. In 1866, after the war ended, the journal of South Carolina’s convention noted a resolution that replaced the word “Confederate” with the word “United” in all documents. The diocese was never required to apply for readmission.
• The Diocese of South Carolina consistently followed General Convention rules about matters such as getting the Standing Committee to give consent for bishops elected by other dioceses (or withhold consent, as happened in 1875). It also sought consent from other dioceses’ Standing Committees for its own bishops to be consecrated.
• When new parishes wanted to be admitted to the diocese, they had to demonstrate their “willingness to conform” to the Constitution and Canons of the national church and the diocese. In 2001, an already-admitted parish was not conforming: The journal noted that All Saints Waccamaw was unwilling to follow national church governance. For that reason, a resolution passed that gave All Saints “seat and voice” (the right to attend and speak), but denied it a vote at diocesan convention.
• The Diocese of South Carolina also turned to General Convention for permission in 1922 when it split into two dioceses: Upper South Carolina and South Carolina.
• Financial assistance to the diocese came from several sources in the 19th and 20th centuries, such as stipends that enabled the impoverished post-war diocese to pay clergy in the late 1800s. Instances of aid continued until as late as January 2012, when Mark Lawrence wrote to request a grant from The Episcopal Church’s United Thank Offering for St. John’s Mission in Charleston. The $15,000 grant was approved. Bishop Lawrence announced he was leaving The Episcopal Church in October of that same year.
• Clergy in the diocese received hundreds of thousands of dollars in retirement benefits over the years through the Church Pension Fund. The plaintiffs and the judge both minimized the importance of those benefits, noting that they came from contributions made by the clergy themselves and by the diocese. However, it was noted that the program is managed by The Episcopal Church; trustees are elected by General Convention.
While Dr. Edgar was acknowledged as an expert – even Judge Diane Goodstein referred to him as “the premier expert on South Carolina history, period” – for most of his testimony he was limited to reading sections of historic documents, and instructed not to offer opinions. Even that came after hours of legal back-and-forth, plus a morning break and a lunch break.
Throughout the morning’s discussion, the judge encouraged the plaintiffs to offer objections, and raised a few of her own. Her remarks appeared to favor the group that split from The Episcopal Church. The breakaway group insists that the diocese must be considered solely as a nonprofit corporation rather than as a religious body. They rely on a South Carolina Supreme Court decision known as the All Saints case, which appears to favor applying “neutral principles” of state corporate law to such disputes.
Judge Goodstein indicated that she thought Dr. Edgar’s testimony might be relevant in the area of “constructive trust,” and said he could speak to the relationship of the diocese in as it relates to that subject. But if his testimony was being offered about the hierarchical nature of The Episcopal Church, “I don’t want to hear it,” the judge said.
Attorney Mary Kostel, representing The Episcopal Church, said the church respectfully disagrees with the court and believes that the hierarchical nature of The Episcopal Church must be considered in rendering a decision. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that in hierarchical churches, courts must defer to the decisions of religious authorities in matters of church polity and governance. The ability of hierarchical churches to govern their own affairs is protected by the First Amendment.
Ms. Kostel reminded the court that in the All Saints litigation, the group led by Mark Lawrence actually argued on the side of The Episcopal Church, and took the position that a parish cannot leave the church – the opposite of its position in the current lawsuit.
While The Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons don’t specifically forbid a diocese from leaving – “it’s arguably ambiguous,” Ms. Kostel said – in cases of ambiguity the court should look at the diocese’s historic conduct and the understanding of the people who adopted the governing documents over the years. “The understanding was, when a diocese accedes, it gives up the right to secede,” Ms. Kostel said.
The judge signaled that she understood Ms. Kostel’s argument, acknowledging that there could be an appeal in the future.
“I want the record to be very clear that the defendants have done everything within their ability to establish the hierarchical nature of the church, and I accept that,” the judge said. “Our courts have said we will not enforce the hierarchical decisions, we are a neutrality state.”