Episcopal Church files motion against order favoring breakaway SC diocese in $500M property dispute

A banner bearing the seal of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. | SC Diocese

The Episcopal Church is fighting a judge's order giving $500 million in church properties to a breakaway diocese in South Carolina, countering a 2017 state Supreme Court ruling that allotted the properties to the national denomination.

The motion was made in response to an order from South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson, who had been tasked with enforcing the state Supreme Court's ruling against the breakaway diocese.

Rather than affirming the high court's decision, however, Dickson issued an order that said each parish, rather than the national denomination, owns its property.

“The Court should reconsider the Order and should alter or amend it to carry into effect the result mandated by the [state] Supreme Court’s decision,” stated the motion filed on behalf of The Episcopal Church.

The motion argues, among other things, that the court “lacked the authority to issue the Order” and that it “misinterprets and contradicts” the state Supreme Court's decision.

“Even if this Court somehow had the authority to relitigate the issues upon which the Supreme Court previously ruled, the Order incorrectly analyzes the facts and improperly applies the law,” the motion adds.

“After eight years of the adversarial process, for the Circuit Court to take away legally recognized rights at this time – based on the identical record that led to the Supreme Court’s reversal of [a lower court decision] – is nothing short of arbitrary and capricious.”

In November 2012, the majority of the members of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina voted to leave the national denomination, leading to years of litigation over church properties.

They voted to leave over theological differences and the apparent mistreatment of their leader, Bishop Mark Lawrence. The breakaway diocese later joined the Anglican Church in North America.

In August 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that The Episcopal Church and the continuing Episcopal members owned the $500 million diocesan properties and name, and not the breakaway diocese.

Acting Justice Costa Pleicones wrote the majority opinion. He concluded that the lower court ruling had an "error of law" that produced "a distorted view of the issues in this case."

However, on June 19, Dickson issued an order arguing that each parish owned its property based upon neutral principles of law rather than being held in trust by the national Episcopal denomination.

“This is a property matter, and the title holders are the owners of their property as set forth in their deeds. There is no clear, convincing evidence of an expressed or constructive trust applicable to any parish,” wrote Dickson.

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