South Carolina Supreme Court orders 14 church properties be given back to The Episcopal Church

The tower of the St Philips Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina. | Getty Images

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that properties held by 14 churches that left The Episcopal Church over its ordination of gay clergy and acceptance of same-sex unions more than a decade ago shall be returned to the denomination and its affiliated diocese in the state.

The court ruled that 14 of the 29 parishes listed in a lawsuit that broke away from The Episcopal Church and later joined the Anglican Church in North America must hand over their properties to The Episcopal Church because they expressly agreed to an Episcopal Church law that places all parish properties in a trust belonging to the national church, the denomination said in a statement.

The other 15 parishes didn’t expressly agree to the canon, the court said.

“Their decisions will no doubt bring joy to many in our diocese, but for others, there will be grief in the possible finality of a loss they have been feeling for nearly 10 years,” the Rt. Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, said. “We now walk into a bright future, one in which we will focus on the reconciling power of the Gospel to transform injustice, to heal the brokenhearted, and to build God’s beloved community.”

The 14 parishes include: Christ Church, Mt. Pleasant; Good Shepherd, Charleston; Holy Comforter, Sumter; Holy Cross, Stateburg; Holy Trinity, Charleston; St. Bartholomew’s, Hartsville; St. David’s, Cheraw; St. Luke’s, Hilton Head; St. Matthew’s, Fort Motte; St. James, Charleston; St. John’s, Johns Island; St. Jude’s, Walterboro; Trinity, Myrtle Beach; and Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston.

The state court deferred the use of trademarks and emblems to federal courts, which is on appeal in the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, The Post and Courier reported.

Longtime Episcopalian Steve Skardon was quoted as saying that secular courts don't have jurisdiction over church disputes on theological matters. He called the court’s decision “a huge mistake” and a wrong precedent.

“It’s going to affect every church in South Carolina,” Skardon said. “Now, instead of working things out with church hierarchy, you can just run to the courts.”

In 2014, the Rev. Shay Gaillard, rector of The Church of the Good Shepherd in Charleston at the time, said, ”The buildings and the land are assets for Gospel ministry. They were paid for by members of this parish, past and present. No outside group should determine their usage,” according to The Augusta Chronicle.

The newspaper also observed at the time that about 50 Episcopal churches in the southern and eastern parts of South Carolina had left as they found the national church had become too liberal, especially on the issue of same-sex marriage.

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