(Updated at 5:10 pm July 3)
Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein today ordered that a trial must begin on July 8 in the lawsuit filed by a breakaway group against The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Responding to the ruling, TECSC filed a petition with the Court of Appeals in Columbia asking it to suspend the order and delay the trial until a pending appeal can be resolved.
(Update: The petition was dismissed Thursday afternoon by the Court of Appeals.)
Judge Goodstein’s ruling came during a hearing in St. George. The case has been stayed pending the outcome of the appeal filed June 23. TECSC is asking the Court of Appeals to overturn an earlier ruling by Judge Goodstein, and allow Mark Lawrence and three other individuals to be added as parties in the lawsuit.
Normally, a stay means a trial cannot begin. However, at today’s hearing the Judge ruled that the issues to be addressed at trial are not affected by the appeal, and ordered all parties to be ready to proceed with the trial on Tuesday at the Dorchester County Courthouse.
Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., Chancellor of TECSC, said that the issue of whether the four individuals can be parties needs to be resolved before the case can go to trial. The four individuals are necessary parties because actions they took to “withdraw” the diocese from The Episcopal Church were outside the scope of their legal authority and violated state law, according to court documents filed by TECSC.
The individuals named in the motion are:
- Mark Lawrence, who was bishop to local Episcopalians from 2006 until December 2012, when the Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church accepted his renunciation as a bishop of TEC. Members of the breakaway group still recognize him as their bishop.
- Jim Lewis, who was Canon to the Ordinary of the diocese, and continues to use that title in the breakaway organization.
- Jeffrey Miller, who has been president of the Standing Committee of the diocese. Miller also is rector of St. Helena’s, Beaufort, one of the congregations that filed suit against TEC.
- Paul Fuener, who has been president of the Standing Committee. Fuener also is rector of Prince George-Winyah in Georgetown, another plaintiff in the suit against The Episcopal Church.
The breakaway group contends that under a legal precedent known as "neutral principles of law," it controls diocese as a nonprofit corporation under South Carolina law. TECSC has asked the courts to uphold the Church’s right of religious freedom under the First Amendment to determine its leadership and governance according to church law. TECSC, under its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, is the diocese that is recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.
Even if neutral principles are applied, the actions taken by the four individuals were unlawful and could not have the effect of withdrawing the diocese from The Episcopal Church, according to court documents filed by TECSC.
In 2012, when the Standing Committee approved a resolution to “disaffiliate” from TEC and announced its withdrawal from the church, “Any and all authority that any of those individuals had in the past to act for the Diocese or its corporate entity of The Trustees was extinguished from that day forward,” according to TECSC filings.
At today’s hearing, Judge Goodstein also ordered that a large number of pre-trial depositions yet to be taken – those involving all the witnesses from the 34 parishes aligned with the breakaway group – must take place on Monday at the courthouse in St. George.
The judge also denied a motion filed by The Episcopal Church seeking a continuance of the trial for three months. TEC was seeking additional time in order to have a reasonable opportunity to examine some 7,000 documents that the breakaway group has submitted as evidence within the last three weeks, according to Mr. Tisdale.