U.S. District Judge Judge C. Weston Houck on Monday issued a stay in a federal false-advertising lawsuit against the bishop of a group that left The Episcopal Church, delaying a ruling until the final outcome of a separate state action that is now before the South Carolina Supreme Court.
The state litigation involves a suit filed by the breakaway group against The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, over control of the assets and identity of the diocese. An appeal in that case is currently before the South Carolina Supreme Court, and oral arguments will take place Wednesday, September 23 at 10:30 a.m. in Columbia.
The federal lawsuit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, was filed in March 2013, a few months after Mark Lawrence announced he had left The Episcopal Church and subsequently was removed as a bishop of the church. The plaintiff is the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, who is the only bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina.
According to the federal lawsuit, by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese, Mark Lawrence is committing false advertising. The suit seeks an injunction against him. Judge Houck initially granted a motion to abstain from the case, citing the pending state lawsuit. However, the Fourth Circuit appeals court found that the judge 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.
In his order Monday, Judge Houck said that the case does present the exceptional circumstances necessary for him to defer to the state courts on the matter. His order says that the dispute between the bishops will be decided when a final ruling is reached in the state court case on the issue of whether the breakaway group can validly “withdraw” the diocese from The Episcopal Church. The judge’s action Monday does not dismiss the federal case, but stays it pending such a final ruling.
Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, said Bishop vonRosenberg’s attorneys are reviewing the court documents Judge Houck issued on Monday and considering the next steps in the process.