Judge Rules in Favor of SC Diocese That Left Episcopal Church, Says It Rightfully Owns Properties Worth $500 Million

(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.

A judge has ruled in favor a diocese that voted to break away from The Episcopal Church regarding a lawsuit over ownership of dozens of church properties worth an estimated $500 million.

Judge Diane Goodstein ruled late on Tuesday that the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina rightfully owns the church properties under their diocese and not the Episcopal Church.

In a 46-page decision, Goodstein argued that the diocese owns all real and personal property, according the paperwork connected to the diocesan property. "It is equally undisputed that there is nothing in the deeds of their real property referencing any trust in favor of TEC," reads the decision.

Goodstein ordered that both the property as well as the trademarked name and marks of the diocese belongs to the Diocese of South Carolina and not TEC or the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, a group within the diocese loyal to TEC.

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(Photo: SC Diocese)A banner bearing the seal of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.

"We are grateful that Judge Goodstein's decision protects South Carolina churches from being added to the long list of properties that TEC seized then either abandoned or sold-off," Jim Lewis, canon to the Ordinary for the breakaway diocese, said in a statement.

"The decision protects our freedom to embrace the faith Anglicans have practiced for hundreds of years — and not the new theology being imposed on TEC's dwindling membership."

Leaving the national church

The Goodstein decision is the latest battle between the theological conservative Diocese of South Carolina and the theological liberal Episcopal Church leadership.

Back in November 2012 at a meeting held at St. Philip's Church in Charleston, the diocese voted overwhelmingly to leave the Episcopal Church.

The reasons focused on the national denomination's increasing acceptance of homosexuality as well as the apparent mistreatment of the Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop of the diocese.

"This has never been about who is welcome or not welcome in our church. … It's about what we shall tell them when they come," stated Lawrence.

In January 2013, a lawsuit ensued over who had control of the diocesan name and property, the breakaway leadership or those within the diocese who remained loyal to the Episcopal Church.

The breakaway leadership garnered some early legal victories, like being given an injunction allowing them to use the name Diocese of South Carolina while the lawsuit was being processed.

Episcopalians loyal to the denomination changed their name to The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and elected the Rev. Charles vonRosenberg as their provisional bishop.

Legal battle

During the summer, Goodstein heard arguments over the property suit. In an earlier interview with The Christian Post, diocesan spokesman the Rev. Lewis said "Our legal counsel did an outstanding job of presenting our case (that our Diocese and parishes have a legal right to disassociate from TEC) and on the flip side, of discrediting all the arguments made by TEC."

"These points were made crystal clear not only in the testimony presented by our witnesses, but with equal force in their cross examination of those witnesses called by TEC."

The Episcopal Church and TECSC argued that the property belongs to them due to the issue of hierarchy, specifically that as a hierarchical entity TEC should govern its own affairs.

The Episcopal Church does not recognize the dismissal of dioceses, which means that they maintain control of the property even if a diocesan leadership votes to leave the denomination.

Diocesan leadership made an argument on the basis of "neutral principles," which involved determining ownership of property by looking at the records connected to the property.

If the records showed that the denomination did not hold the diocesan name and property in trust, then The Episcopal Church lost its right to claim said entities as their own.

A likely appeal

While the breakaway diocese won a favorable ruling from Goodstein, it is likely, if not inevitable, that The Episcopal Church and TECSC will appeal the decision.

Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale of TECSC said in a statement released Wednesday that they were reviewing the decision to see about the possibility of an appeal.

"We are considering all the issues raised by the court order and plan to recommend to the Church to engage the appeal process as appropriate," stated Tisdale. "The result of the recent trial was not unexpected and road ahead in the judicial system is clear to us."

TECSC leader Bishop vonRosenberg echoed similar statements on Wednesday, saying that "[p]erseverance is our call and intention, on this journey in our day"

"Our biblical heritage tells of journeys experienced by faithful people. Those journeys often were difficult and filled with setbacks, but people of faith were called to persevere on the way," said vonRosenberg.

"The Episcopal Church in South Carolina believes that such is the situation we now must endure for a while, as we continue on this journey."