A notice of appeal was filed today with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on a federal judge’s decision not to hear the lawsuit filed by the bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina against the former bishop of the diocese.
The notice of appeal was filed on behalf of the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg in a suit filed against the former bishop of the diocese, who announced in October 2012 that he was leaving The Episcopal Church.
The lawsuit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, was filed in March 2013, seeking to keep Mark Lawrence from representing himself as the bishop of the diocese and 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. U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck decided in August to abstain from and dismiss the suit. Last month, Judge Houck denied a motion asking him to reconsider that decision.
A central issue in the federal case is the right of church authorities, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to make decisions on matters of polity and administration: for example, who will serve as bishop of a diocese. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that in such matters, civil courts must defer to ecclesiastical authorities in a hierarchical church such as The Episcopal Church.
Meanwhile, a separate lawsuit in state court, filed by the breakaway group against The Episcopal Church and TECSC, remains stayed pending an appeal to the South Carolina Court of Appeals.
At issue in the appeal is correspondence between Beaufort attorney C. Alan Runyan and Bishop Lawrence prior to November 17, 2012 that relates to the Diocese of South Carolina and The Episcopal Church. Mr. Runyan was legal counsel for the diocese prior to that date, which is when leaders of the breakaway group met and purported to “withdraw” from The Episcopal Church. Mr. Runyan now represents the breakaway group.
In seeking the documents, attorneys for TECSC note any attorney-client privilege that existed prior to the withdrawal should belong to, or a least be shared by, TECSC. However, Circuit Court Judge Diane S. Goodstein denied TECSC’s request for the documents, prompting the appeal.
According to a legal response from TECSC filed with the Court of Appeals on January 24, “in this dispute where both sides claim to be the one and only continuing Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina after the split in late 2012, the Respondents’ exclusive possession and access to the prior legal positions of the then-unified Diocese gives the Respondents an unfair informational advantage. The fact that the same lawyer is now representing the Respondents in this litigation only compounds that unfairness.”