The South Carolina Supreme Court should find that The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and not a breakaway group, is entitled to control the identity and assets of the Diocese of South Carolina, according to the initial brief in an appeal of a Dorchester County court decision.
The 51-page “Initial Brief of Appellants” was filed May 15 by The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. TECSC represents 30 congregations and about 7,000 Episcopalians who remained as part of The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion after the breakaway group led by Mark Lawrence announced in 2012 that it was leaving the church. The breakaway group continues to use the name “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina,” but is operating independently of any larger religious body, and has no official connection to the Anglican Communion.
In January 2013 the breakaway group sued The Episcopal Church, and later TECSC, seeking control of all the diocesan property, the official name and seal, and the properties of parishes which joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. After a three-week trial in July 2014, Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein ruled in favor of the breakaway group. TEC and TECSC then filed a motion to bypass the state appeals court and appeal directly to the Supreme Court, which agreed to take the case.
The May 15 brief states that the trial court in Dorchester County erred on several questions of law.
“Before this dispute erupted, everyone intended for ... church properties to be controlled by South Carolinians affiliated with the National Church. The plain language of the Church’s rules requires this. Yet, when the dissidents left the National Church because they disagreed with its doctrine and governance, they wanted to change the terms of the deal and take the Diocese’s and parishes’ property interests with them,” the brief says.
“The First Amendment does not permit the court system to bless this sort of action. ‘Neutral principles of law’ can resolve some property disputes, but the Constitution does not permit a court to upend a church’s administration or trump its hierarchy,” the brief says.
Even setting aside the First Amendment issues, “civil law does not permit people to create confusion with federally-protected brands and trademarks, to alter trusts created by statutes, or to retroactively validate unlawful corporate actions,” the brief says. “People can leave The Episcopal Church at will, but they cannot take the church’s identity and property when they go.”
The Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina upheld the so-called “neutral principles” approach in South Carolina, which calls on courts to apply civil law to property disputes. However, All Saints also specifically recognized that neutral principles must give way to questions of religious law or doctrine that are “masquerading as a dispute over church property or corporate control.” The trial court erred by consistently refusing to allow evidence related to ecclesiastical and doctrinal matters, the brief says.
The brief also states that the trial court erred by not recognizing that the language of the legislative charter that created the Trustee Corporation of the diocese – the entity which holds the property of the diocese – actually references The Episcopal Church and its recognized diocese.
The 1880 statute that created the Trustee Corporation says that the Bishop and Standing Committee of “The Protestant Episcopal Church for the Diocese of South Carolina” are appointed trustees “for the purpose of holding in trust any property heretofore given or acquired, or hereafter to be given or acquired, for objects connected with said Church, in said Diocese.” The statute specifically references the trustees reporting annually “to the Convention of the Diocese of the said Church,” again referring to The Episcopal Church as “the said Church.”
Under that language, all gifts to the diocese, including the 1951 gift of the Camp St. Christopher property on Seabrook Island, are held in trust for the larger ministry of The Episcopal Church and its diocese, TECSC, the brief says.
The breakaway group now has 30 days to file its written response to the brief. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are set for September 23, 2015.
Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of TECSC, said that because the case involves an action in equity, the Supreme Court can apply the “de novo” standard of review, meaning that it is not bound by the trial court’s findings of fact but can find facts in accordance with its own view of the evidence. “The Supreme court can conclude the entire matter on its own, without the necessity of a new trial,” he said.