A federal false-advertising lawsuit against the bishop of a group that left The Episcopal Church returned to U.S. District Court today, as Judge C. Weston Houck held a status hearing on vonRosenberg v. Lawrence.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit had sent the case back to Judge Houck in March, ruling in favor of attorneys for Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
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, Judge Houck granted Bishop Lawrence’s motion to abstain from the case, citing the fact that another lawsuit filed by the breakaway group against The Episcopal Church was pending in state court.
The Fourth Circuit appeals court found that Judge Houck applied the wrong legal standard in deciding to abstain, and 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.
The breakaway group has filed a motion to dismiss with Judge Houck, and must file a brief on that motion by June 30; Bishop vonRosenberg will then have 15 days to respond.
Meanwhile, the separate state court case filed by the breakaway group has moved through the circuit court in Dorchester County. A judge ruled in favor of the breakaways. That decision is being appealed to the state Supreme Court by The Episcopal Church and the local diocese. Oral arguments before the Supreme Court are scheduled for September 23.
Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, represented Bishop vonRosenberg at today’s hearing. Asked by the judge whether the Supreme Court appeal should be a factor in whether to proceed with the federal case, Mr. Tisdale said it should not. The judge agreed.