The Episcopal Church in South Carolina has asked the South Carolina Court of Appeals to overturn a judge’s ruling and allow Mark Lawrence and three other individuals to be added as parties in the lawsuit filed by the breakaway group that is seeking legal control of the Diocese of South Carolina.
A trial in the case is set to begin July 7 in Dorchester County. However, the trial may have to be postponed if the appeal is not resolved by that time, since an appeal automatically stays the case and moves jurisdiction to the Court of Appeals.
TECSC filed a motion in November seeking to have the four individuals joined to the suit. At a hearing in December, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein indicated she would deny the motion, and said she would issue a written order to that effect – a necessary step before an appeal. The final written order from which an appeal could be made was issued June 6. TECSC filed the appeal on June 23.
The four individuals are necessary parties because actions they took to “withdraw” the diocese from The Episcopal Church were outside the scope of their legal authority and violated state law, according to TECSC’s motion.
The individuals named in the motion are:
• Mark Lawrence, who was bishop to local Episcopalians from 2006 until December 2012, when the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church accepted his renunciation as a bishop of TEC. Members of the breakaway group still recognize him as their bishop.
• Jim Lewis, who was Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, and continues to use that title in the breakaway organization.
• Jeffrey Miller, who has been president of the Standing Committee of the diocese. Miller also is rector of St. Helena’s, Beaufort, one of the congregations that filed suit against TEC.
• Paul Fuener, who has been president of the Standing Committee. Fuener also is rector of Prince George-Winyah in Georgetown, another plaintiff in the suit against The Episcopal Church.
The breakaway group contends that under a legal precedent known as "neutral principles of law," it controls diocese as a nonprofit corporation under South Carolina law. TECSC has asked the courts to uphold the Church’s right of religious freedom under the First Amendment to determine its leadership and governance according to church law. TECSC, under its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, is the diocese that is recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
Even if neutral principles are applied, however, the actions taken by the four individuals were illegal and could not have the effect of withdrawing the diocese from The Episcopal Church, according to court documents.
Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of TECSC, said there is a vital legal principle at stake having the four individuals added to the suit. “We can’t get the relief we are entitled to unless they are named as parties,” he said. “We’re saying we own the corporation, so a victory in court would mean we win against our own corporation.” Adding the four individuals would allow them to be held accountable for their actions.
TECSC’s motion lists 18 causes of action against the four, including breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, conversion, trademark infringement and civil conspiracy. According to the TECSC motion, evidence produced in the discovery process of the lawsuit so far has revealed “numerous personal and individual ultra vires, fraudulent, and intentional unlawful acts.” “Ultra vires" is a Latin term meaning "beyond powers,” and describes acts that are beyond the scope of powers granted under corporation law.
The four individuals' actions were part of a scheme to withdraw the diocese from The Episcopal Church, beginning as early as 2006 when Lawrence was still under consideration to become bishop of South Carolina, and assured church officials that he did not intend to withdraw the diocese from TEC, according to documents filed with the court.
As ordained individuals, Lawrence, Lewis, Miller and Fuener all took vows to adhere to “the doctrine, discipline and worship of The Episcopal Church,” and TEC relied on those promises in granting them authority in the diocese. But beginning around 2009, the four began executing a conspiracy to take away the assets of the diocese and "deprive Episcopalians loyal to the Episcopal Church of their property rights" by manipulating the corporate entity of the diocese, according to the documents.
The diocese’s corporate entity was formed in 1973, following a state Supreme Court decision that changed the charitable immunity doctrine regarding churches. For the next 37 years of its existence, the corporate entity of the diocese did not adopt bylaws, hold corporate meetings, elect officers or function as a corporation; it existed only as a “corporate embodiment of the ecclesiastical operation of the diocese,” to provide a shield against personal liability.
But in 2010, a series of changes were made to the corporation, many done during improper executive sessions, for the purpose of later withdrawing the diocese from The Episcopal Church. These actions did not comply with either the corporate charter or the state Nonprofit Corporations Act, according to the proposed pleading.
Those actions led up to the events of October 2012, when the Standing Committee approved a resolution to “disaffiliate” from TEC and announced its withdrawal from the church. “Any and all authority that any of those individuals had in the past to act for the Diocese or its corporate entity of The Trustees was extinguished from that day forward,” and actions since then, including the November 2012 “special convention,” have no legal effect.