South Carolina Court Hands Down Mixed Ruling in Episcopal Dispute

Episcopal Church officials speak regularly about themes of reconciliation, but their actions in the courts indicate that property and exclusivity of their Anglican Communion franchise is paramount.

Today the South Carolina Supreme Court in a 3-2 ruling partly overturned and partly upheld an earlier District Court ruling that had favored the Diocese of South Carolina, which dissolved its connection with the Episcopal denomination in October 2012. The majority reversed the lower court on the status of ownership for 29 of 36 disputed parish properties. A final ruling would affect more than $500 million in diocesan and parish properties.

On February 3, 2015, Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the departing diocese was legally entitled to the property and use of the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina”.

A lower court ruling on the issue of intellectual property issues, including which group controls the diocesan name and seal, was left in place with justices splitting 2-2.

A majority of members in 49 churches voted to sever their ties to the Episcopal Church and remain affiliated with the diocese following disputes over the redefinition and reinterpretation of Scripture.

The Diocese of South Carolina is the fifth U.S. diocese to vote to depart the national church. Based on a review of yearly audited financial statements, attorney and Episcopal Church blogger A.S. Haley estimates the denomination and its dioceses have spent in excess of $40 million in litigation expenses in disputes with departing Anglicans. In December 2011 the Diocese of Quincy (Illinois) won a legal dispute on property ownership over the Episcopal Church that was subsequently upheld on appeal. Litigation is ongoing in the state of Texas, where the diocese of Fort Worth departed the Episcopal Church in 2008.

In June 2017, the Diocese of South Carolina formally joined the Anglican Church in North America. The diocese now counts 53 member churches and more than 20,000 members.

Episcopal Church U.S. membership dropped 2.1 percent in 2015, the most recent reporting year, a loss of 37,669 persons. Attendance declined 20,631 persons, down 3.4 percent.

IRD Anglican Program Director Jeff Walton commented:

“Episcopal Church officials speak regularly about themes of reconciliation, but their actions in the courts indicate that property and exclusivity of their Anglican Communion franchise is paramount. The Episcopal Church has spent millions of dollars to litigate against departing Anglicans.

“The Episcopal Church and its liberal Mainline Protestant counterparts refuse to accept what has become obvious: the majority of many congregations across the country do not want to depart their denominations, but will do so if liberal leadership continues down an unfaithful path.

“Sadly, the Episcopal Church appears more interested in the recovery of property than in reconciliation.”

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