Conservative Breakaway Episcopal Diocese Has Right to $500 Million Worth of Church Property, Over 100 Clergy Argue in Brief

(Photo: Jim Lewis of SC Diocese)The office for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, whose leadership decided to leave The Episcopal Church in 2012.

More than 100 clergy have signed on to an amicus brief in favor of a conservative breakaway Episcopal diocese's claim to approximately $500 million worth of property.

In August, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled against the Diocese of South Carolina in its effort to secure ownership of church property. The court concluded that the property belonged to the denomination, The Episcopal Church.

Filed last Friday, the amicus brief asks the court to grant the breakaway diocese's request for a rehearing, arguing that the August ruling contradicted longstanding legal precedent.

"The Court's decision improperly entangles civil courts in forbidden questions of 'religious doctrine, polity, and practice' (id. at 603) by making property rights turn on the court's interpretation of internal church issues," said the brief.

"In so doing, the decision misreads U.S. Supreme Court precedent and conflicts with the decisions of other courts that have considered similar issues."

Clergy who have signed on to the brief come from varied denominational backgrounds, including Baptists, the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church in America, Episcopal, evangelical, and nondenominational.

The Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, spokesman for the diocese, said in a statement released Monday that the amicus brief "illustrates well two essential problems with the current ruling of the Court."

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(Photo: Joy Hunter)The Right Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, testifying before Judge Diane Goodstein in July 2014 over a trial surrounding the property dispute between his diocese and The Episcopal Church.

"Because there is no legal consensus among the Justices, the ruling as it stands is, as stated in the brief, a 'recipe for endless litigation,'" stated Lewis.

"As a consequence of misapplying neutral principles of law as intended by the U.S. Supreme Court, it violates rather than preserves, the First Amendment protections of religious liberty they are meant to ensure. Resolving these significant issues merits rehearing by the Court."

In November 2012, the South Carolina Diocese voted to leave the national denomination due to theological differences and the apparent mistreatment of diocesan bishop the Rev. Mark Lawrence.

Since January 2013, the diocese has been in litigation over who rightfully owns the diocesan property — the conservative breakaway leadership or the denomination along with those within the diocese who remained loyal to the national church body.

In February 2015, Judge Diane Goodstein ruled in favor of the breakaway diocesan leadership and in September of that year the state supreme court heard arguments in an appeal.

In August, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of the national denomination, with Acting Justice Costa Pleicones authoring the majority opinion.

"I conclude that the present property and church governance disputes are not appropriate for resolution in the civil courts and would reverse the order to the extent it purports to resolve these questions," wrote Justice Pleicones.

"Finally, I find the trial court erred in holding that the Respondents' state-registered trademarks prevail over TEC's federally-protected trademarks, and therefore would also reverse that portion of the order."

Mediation between the two parties began earlier this month. However, it was put on delay until Dec. 4-5. 

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