The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit today ruled in favor of attorneys for Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and sent vonRosenberg v. Lawrence back to U.S. District Court in Charleston for another hearing.
The ruling came in a published opinion from Judge Diana Gribbon Motz, the head of the three-judge panel that heard the case on January 28 in Richmond, Va. A published opinion means that it has value as precedent in future federal cases, according to Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., Chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, who presented oral arguments before the panel in January.
The appeal focused on the issue of 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. Mark Lawrence, by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese, is committing false advertising, according to a brief filed with the appeals court in 2014. The suit seeks an injunction against Bishop Lawrence.
The federal lawsuit was filed in March 2013, a few months after Bishop Lawrence announced he had left The Episcopal Church and subsequently was removed as a bishop of the church. In August 2013, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck granted Bishop Lawrence’s motion to abstain from the case, citing the fact that another lawsuit arising from the schism was also pending in state court, filed by the breakaway group.
Today’s ruling found that Judge Houck erred by applying the wrong legal standard in his decision to abstain when he cited the Brillhart v. Excess Insurance Co. of America and Wilton v. Seven Falls Co. decisions. Bishop vonRosenberg’s appeal contended that the judge should have followed the principles set forth in the Colorado River Water Conservation District v. United States decision, which says the court may abstain only in “exceptional” circumstances.
“Nothing in the record in this case indicates that Bishop vonRosenberg's request for injunctive relief is frivolous or designed to avoid application of the Brillhart/Wilton standard. Accordingly, the Colorado River standard governs the abstention question here,” Judge Motz wrote.
The ruling sends the case back to U.S. District Court in Charleston for a hearing on whether such “exceptional” circumstances are present in the case under the Colorado River standard. If not, then the U.S. District Court would be expected to hear the case on its merits.