Lead counsel for the Diocese, Alan Runyan, said the lead opinion and concurring’s decision is inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent involving church property disputes.
In a 77 page opinion, the South Carolina Supreme Court today reversed portions of an earlier lower court ruling. In February 2015, circuit court Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina, its trustees and the 50 parishes — representing 80 percent of the members — that disassociated with the Diocese successfully withdrew from The Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012, taking all their property, including churches, symbols and other assets. The ruling was the result of a three-week trial in 2014.
That court found that “the Constitution and Canons of TEC have no provision which states that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership.” This ruling found that had there been such a provision, it would have violated the diocese’s “constitutionally protected right” to freedom of association. “With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Judge Goodstein wrote.
In a complicated ruling consisting of five separate opinions, the S.C. Supreme Court today ruled that parishes which had “acceded” to the national church’s ‘Dennis canon’ are subject to a trust interest on their property by the denomination. Eight congregations that had not so acceded were judged to have full rights to retain their property.
The dissenting justices expressed concern regarding the long term implications of this decision. Former Chief Justice Jean Toal stated that the court should have relied on “over three hundred years of settled trust and property law… I believe the effect of the majority’s decision is to strip a title owner of its property…” on the basis of actions that do not create a trust interest under South Carolina law. In concurring with Justice Toal, Justice Kittredge observed of other church properties where there is affiliation with a national organization, based on this ruling, “if you think your property ownership is secure, think again.”
This current litigation became necessary when TEC attempted to wrongly remove Bishop Lawrence, and the Diocese, in response, elected to disassociate from TEC. At that time a small group, of TEC loyalists who had been preparing for this attempted removal began an intentional campaign of using the Diocesan Seal and other service marks of the Diocese. They began to function as if they were the Diocese of South Carolina. To maintain its identity required that the Diocese defend that identity.
Lead counsel for the Diocese, Alan Runyan, said the lead opinion and concurring’s decision is inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent involving church property disputes. Legal counsel continues to review a lengthy and complicated ruling comprised of five separate opinions.
Supreme Court’s Ruling:
Judge Goodstein’s Orders:
History of the Case and The Diocese of South Carolina:
About the Diocese of South Carolina
The Diocese was founded in 1785 by the parishes of the former South Carolina colony. Based in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, the Diocese is one of the oldest religious districts in the United States and counts among its members several of the oldest, operating churches in the nation.
The Diocese of South Carolina is recognized by Anglican Dioceses and Provinces around the world, many of whom have broken fellowship with The Episcopal Church, and in 2013 the Diocese joined the global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and entered into a formal relationship of Provisional Primatial Oversight with Global South Primates.
The Diocese was welcomed into the province of the Anglican Church in North America during their Provincial Council meeting in June of 2017.