Attorneys for Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg have filed an opening brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, asking the appeals court to reverse a federal judge’s decision to abstain in vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, and send the case back to U.S. District Court in Charleston to be decided on its merits.
The opening brief, filed Monday, narrows the focus of the appeal to one issue: False advertising under the federal Lanham Act. Bishop vonRosenberg is the only bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. By continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese, Mark Lawrence is committing false advertising, the brief says.
The brief asks the Court of Appeals to decide two questions: whether the District Court erred in abstaining from jurisdiction on the false-advertising claim, and whether it also erred in denying the motion for a preliminary injunction against Bishop Lawrence. It also asks that oral arguments be heard in the case.
Attorney Jason Smith, who along with Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr. is serving as counsel for Bishop vonRosenberg, said that the trademark issues involved in the original federal lawsuit are not being raised in the appeal. When U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck refused to hear the case, he dismissed the trademark issues without prejudice, noting that similar issues are part of a state lawsuit filed by the breakaway group. Judge Houck’s order left open the possibility that those issues still could be brought to federal court if the state courts do not properly resolve them, Mr. Smith said.
In focusing on the issue of who may rightfully claim to be the bishop of the diocese, the brief draws clear parallels between Bishop vonRosenberg’s situation and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Serbian E. Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich. That 1976 decision states that in a hierarchical church, civil courts must defer to church authorities in disputes over matters of church governance, such as deciding who is authorized to be the bishop. Federal courts have long held that The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church.
In October 2012, a disciplinary panel found that Bishop Lawrence had “abandoned The Episcopal Church by an open renunciation of the Discipline of the Church.” As required by church Canons, the Presiding Bishop placed him under restriction from exercising his office, pending an investigation by the House of Bishops. Bishop Lawrence and other church leaders responded by announcing that they had “withdrawn” from The Episcopal Church.
In December 2012, the Presiding Bishop accepted his renunciation, and he was removed from the ordained ministry of the church. The Presiding Bishop then called a special Diocesan Convention in January 2013. There, delegates elected Bishop vonRosenberg, who is recognized by The Episcopal Church as the one and only rightful bishop of the local diocese.
“Despite his renunciation and removal from office, Bishop Lawrence continues to hold himself out as the Bishop of the Diocese, and continues to make other false representations of fact...” the brief says.
Judge Houck’s decision answered an important question in the case, by finding that Bishop vonRosenberg has standing to bring claims against Bishop Lawrence under the Lanham Act, individually, the brief says. Bishop vonRosenberg has the right to communicate with people and carry out his duties as the sole bishop of the diocese. The federal lawsuit asks the court to prevent Bishop Lawrence from interfering with that right and creating confusion by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese.
“To stop the irreversible injury that has gone on far too long already, this Court should reverse the District Court’s denial of the preliminary injunction motion and award the preliminary relief to which Bishop vonRosenberg is so clearly entitled on the merits,” the brief says.