The legal questions raised by a group attempting to break the Diocese of South Carolina away from The Episcopal Church have far-reaching implications not just for the local diocese, but for Episcopalians across the United States and for the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to a legal response filed in U.S. District Court this week.
Central to the issue of whether the federal court is the proper forum for the dispute is the question of the role of the First Amendment in the court's determination of whether a diocese of The Episcopal Church can unilaterally withdraw from the Church, as the breakaway group claims to have done, according to the “Defendant’s Response to Plaintiff’s Motion to Remand” filed April 29.
The breakaway group is seeking “to employ the power of the judiciary to abnegate the determinations of Church authorities on matters of Church governance and doctrine and thereby affect a radical reordering of the Church’s polity. Whether the First Amendment permits that is a matter of immeasurable importance not merely to millions of Episcopalians across the country but to the free exercise of religion in general,” the response says.
The suit was filed in January by a group of church leaders and parishes following Mark Lawrence, asking the Circuit Court in Dorchester County to give them control of the name, marks and property of the diocese. Local church officials who are remaining part of The Episcopal Church exercised their right to have the case removed to U.S. District Court on March 5. The breakaway faction responded with a motion to have the case remanded, or sent back, to Circuit Court. A hearing on the Motion to Remand has been set for June 6 before U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck.
The Dorchester County court is where the breakaway group was granted a temporary restraining order – later a temporary injunction – preventing anyone but Bishop Lawrence and his officials from using the name “Diocese of South Carolina.” To comply with the order, the local Episcopal Church diocese has been using a working name, “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” also referred to as “TECSC” in court documents.
In the TECSC response filed this week, attorneys note that a central issue of the case is whether the diocese validly could withdraw from The Episcopal Church. The Episcopal Church has consistently held that while individuals are free to leave the Church, a diocese may not unilaterally withdraw or secede. “If the Diocese and the parishes were not validly withdrawn from the Church, then Bishop Lawrence and the rest of the ‘current leadership’ are not the true leaders of those entities,” the response says.
In December 2012, after Bishop Lawrence publicly stated that he had left The Episcopal Church, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori accepted his renunciation and removed him from the ordained ministry of the Church. She convened a special diocesan convention in Charleston in January, where local Episcopalians elected the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg as provisional bishop of the diocese.
The breakaway group “cannot possibly prevail on its claim unless it was validly withdrawn from the Church, and that conclusion cannot be reached without confronting the First Amendment question whether civil courts must defer to the Church’s determination on the matter,” the TECinSC response says.
The U.S. Supreme Court has previously stated that The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church. In cases involving hierarchical churches, in questions of church polity and administration, civil courts must defer to “the highest ecclesiastical tribunals in which church law vests authority to make that interpretation,” according to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court case known as Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich.
The constitutional issues raised in the South Carolina case are important to more than just the parties to the suit, the TECSC response says. It notes that “the First amendment issue here already is or soon will be at play in other similar litigation” elsewhere in the United States, involving not only The Episcopal Church but also Presbyterian and Methodist denominations. Leaving a state court to resolve an issue that could be “controlling” in other cases across the nation would undermine the uniform interpretation of the First Amendment, a key reason why the federal court has an interest in hearing the case.