U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck said today he expects to issue a written order in about a week deciding whether a lawsuit filed against The Episcopal Church and its local diocese raises First Amendment issues and should be heard in federal court, or should be sent back to the state court where a group breaking away from the Church originally filed it.
At a 45-minute hearing at the federal courthouse on Broad Street, Judge Houck said the issue is a question of subject matter jurisdiction, and “it’s important that we try to get this right here today.” After hearing arguments from attorneys on both sides of the case, the judge announced he would take the matter under advisement, saying the issues in the case warrant a written order which he will issue in about a week.
The hearing involves a suit filed in January by a group of former church leaders and some 34 parishes in eastern South Carolina who say they have “disassociated” from The Episcopal Church, seeking control of the name, seal and properties of the diocese. The group is continuing to call itself “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina” and recognizes Mark Lawrence as its bishop.
Defendants in the suit are The Episcopal Church (the international church organization) and its local diocese, which is currently using the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.” The local diocese is headed by the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, who was elected as bishop in January after Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori accepted Mark Lawrence’s renunciation of his orders as a bishop in The Episcopal Church.
Bishop vonRosenberg arrived at the hearing early, with a team of four attorneys, including Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., the Chancellor of The Episcopal Church’s diocese, Matthew D. McGill of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher in Washington, DC., Carlo D. Marchioli of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, and Jason Smith of Hellman, Yates & Tisdale in Charleston.
At least 25-30 lawyers for the breakaway group and the parishes that have joined the breakaway group’s suit were packed into the seats; court officials passed around a legal pad to collect all the names. Mark Lawrence also attended, arriving after the hearing began.
Judge Houck referred to the thousands of pages of court documents filed by the group so far. He said that while there was no reason to discuss court procedures yet, “we’re not going to have 20 or 30 lawyers filing the same papers,” forcing his clerks to sort through multiple filings to determine whether they are identical. The attorneys would need to work together and consolidate, he said. “We’re going to do it a different way if the case stays here in this court.”
He also spoke of the complex and confusing nature of the suit. “When I first got this case, I was somewhat confused as to who is who,” he said, laughing. But he added that not knowing who is who might also make a person more impartial, “so maybe that’s a good thing.”
At issue on Thursday is whether the case should be heard by Judge Houck, or be remanded to S.C. Circuit Court in Dorchester County, as the breakway group has requested. “I’ve read it and I don’t see how anybody could plead more clearly that they wanted the case heard in state court,” Judge Houck said.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC) exercised its right in April to have the case removed from state court to the federal court, citing significant First Amendment and federal trademark law issues that should properly be decided by a federal court.
Attorney Alan Runyan of Speights & Runyan in Beaufort did most of the presentation for the breakaway group, addressing the court first. He said TECSC’s removal did not meet the legal tests that are required to justify keeping it in federal court. Mr. Runyan said the State of South Carolina has the right to choose its own way to resolve the case, and in South Carolina, that method is to apply “neutral principles of law.” The state courts should decide the case solely on the basis corporate control, treating the diocese as a nonprofit corporation and applying state laws that govern corporations, he said.
Mr. McGill responded that the real issue is not about property, but about whether a diocese can validly withdraw from The Episcopal Church (TEC). The breakaway group, in its own legal filings, acknowledges that it is “a subject of controversy” whether TEC possesses the authority to prevent a diocese from withdrawing.
That “substantial controversy” is a matter of church polity and must be resolved by ecclesiastical law, not state property law, under the First Amendment, Mr. McGill said. 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.
“What’s at stake here is nothing less than the freedom of hierarchichal churches to organize themselves as they see fit,” Mr. McGill said.
The Episcopal Church has consistently held that while individuals are free to leave the Church, a diocese may not unilaterally withdraw or secede.
TECSC has asserted in its court filings in the case that the constitutional issues raised by this case are likely to come into play in similar litigation around the United States, involving not only TEC 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.