(Photo: Abe Thomy)
A diocese leadership that broke away from The Episcopal Church last year has filed suit against its former denomination over the estimated $500 million in church property under its supervision.
The South Carolina Diocese, headed by Bishop Mark Lawrence, filed their suit Friday with the intention of gaining not only the property but also exclusive rights over the title and seal of the diocese.
"[T]he plaintiff, The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina ('Diocese of South Carolina') is the only properly organized civil corporation and organization entitled to the use and control of the corporate entity, its names, emblems, styles and seal, its corporate assets, its real and personal property," reads the suit in part.
Jan Pringle, spokesperson for the breakaway South Carolina Diocese, told The Christian Post that the diocese has confidence that they can defeat The Episcopal Church in court.
"South Carolina has firmly stated that if a dispute can be resolved using state laws involving trusts, contracts and similar civil remedies, then it must be resolved that way," said Pringle. "We believe under any of the state laws that we have included in our complaint, The Episcopal Church is not likely to succeed."
Last year, the South Carolina Diocese leadership announced their intention to leave The Episcopal Church due to theological differences and the denomination's Disciplinary Board for Bishops finding Lawrence guilty of "abandonment of the communion of the church."
In November 2012, at St. Philip's Church in Charleston, the diocese voted to amend their governing documents to finalize their departing The Episcopal Church. As the diocese sought to leave, those loyal to The Episcopal Church formed a "Steering Committee" to continue the diocese under TEC.
Last month, as part of the ongoing dispute over who rightly controlled the South Carolina Diocese, TEC Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori officially accepted the renunciation of the Rev. Mark Lawrence as Bishop of the South Carolina Diocese, even though those loyal to Lawrence disputed the legitimacy of the process.
Jeff Walton, Anglican Program director at the Institute on Religion & Democracy, told The Christian Post that the suit by the diocese against TEC "has a good basis for going forward."
"In South Carolina, the diocese is a legal corporation with elected officers -- another group cannot assume their identity," said Walton.
"This is not to say that loyalist Episcopalians cannot have a presence in South Carolina, they are entitled to remain with the national denomination if they so choose. But the loyalist Episcopalians must form a new diocese, not assume the identity of the departing one."
As to the possible success of the diocese's suit against the denomination, Walton told CP about a previous legal case in the state surrounding All Saints Church of Pawley's Island that could help the diocese.
"In that case, the departing parish (which left The Episcopal Church a decade ago) was determined by the state supreme court to be the rightful owner of the disputed property," said Walton.
"The court ruled that the denomination's Dennis canon – an internal church rule stating that all property is held in trust for the diocese and national church – did not carry legal weight, and that the state did not acknowledge implied trusts."
Neva Rae Fox, public affairs officer for The Episcopal Church, told The Christian Post that the church body has not yet received the legal papers and therefore cannot comment on the suit.
Fox did tell CP that the official visit by Presiding Bishop Jefferts Schori to the continuing Episcopalians in South Carolina scheduled for later this month would go as planned.
Holly Behre, spokeswoman for the Steering Committee of the continuing Episcopal population of the South Carolina Diocese, declined to comment to The Christian Post regarding the suit.