CHARLESTON – U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck says he will rule in about a week on whether he will move forward with a federal lawsuit filed by the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg seeking to stop Mark Lawrence from representing himself as the bishop of the diocese and using its name and marks.
In a hearing that lasted about an hour, the judge heard arguments on a motion from Bishop Lawrence to have the federal suit dismissed, or to have the court abstain from exercising jurisdiction, or stay the proceedings pending the outcome of another case pending in South Carolina Circuit Court.
Both the plaintiff and defendant attended the hearing. Afterward, Bishop vonRosenberg approached Bishop Lawrence and the two men shook hands and spoke briefly as they made their way out of the courtroom.
VonRosenberg v. Lawrence was filed in March, asking the court to find that only Bishop vonRosenberg, as The Episcopal Church’s recognized bishop, should control the name and marks of the diocese.
In a separate motion, Bishop vonRosenberg also asked the court to grant a preliminary injunction to stop Bishop Lawrence from using the name and marks of the diocese and from representing that his activities are associated with the diocese. The court had also been scheduled to hear arguments on the preliminary injunction motion today, but the judge ended the hearing after listening to both sides regarding the motion to dismiss.
Presenting Bishop vonRosenberg’s case was Matthew D. McGill of the Washington, DC office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. Arguing on behalf of Bishop Lawrence was Howell V. “Skeets” Bellamy, Jr. of the Bellamy Law Firm in Myrtle Beach.
Mr. Bellamy said that having the federal suit move forward would be counterproductive and cause confusion in the lawsuit in state court that was filed in January by the breakaway group following Bishop Lawrence. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina had sought to have that case heard in federal court as well, but in June, Judge Houck ruled that it should go back to state court.
Judge Houck questioned Mr. McGill several times during his presentation about the logistics of proceeding with the federal case while the state case is also moving forward. “When I look at the act of trying this case in the shadow of the state court case, I can’t figure it out,” the judge said.
But Mr. McGill noted that Bishop vonRosenberg – who is not named as a party in the state lawsuit – has a case under federal law that cannot be resolved by the state court action. By falsely claiming to be the bishop of the diocese, Bishop Lawrence is engaging in false advertising under federal trademark law known as the Lanham Act. That is harming Bishop vonRosenberg’s ability to carry out his duties as the leader of Episcopalians in this part of the state, Mr. McGill said.
According to a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, civil courts may not interfere in decisions made by hierarchical churches, such as The Episcopal Church, about decisions as to who is the true bishop of a diocese. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori accepted Bishop Lawrence's renunciation of ministry in The Episcopal Church in December after he announced that he was no longer affiliated with the Church. Bishop vonRosenberg was elected and installed as bishop on January 26.
Meanwhile, the case in state court before Circuit Judge Diane S. Goodstein is currently proceeding with written discovery, the fact-finding process that takes place after a lawsuit and before trial, in which each side requests information and written documents from the other parties. No trial date is expected to be set before early 2014.
The state lawsuit was filed in January by former church leaders and some 34 parishes in eastern South Carolina who say they have “disassociated” from The Episcopal Church. It seeks control of the name, seal and properties of the diocese under state law that governs nonprofit corporations. The group continues to call itself “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” and recognizes Mark Lawrence as its bishop.
Defendants in the state lawsuit are The Episcopal Church (the international church organization) and its local diocese, which is currently using the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.”