Culture Institutions

Breakaway South Carolina Episcopalians win major court case

St. Michael's Episcopal Church is one of Charleston's most famous and historic churches, and part of a group of South Carolina parishes that seceded from the national Episcopal Church. RNS file photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

(RNS) The Episcopal Church lost a major court battle on Tuesday (Feb. 3) when a South Carolina judge ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina legally seceded from the denomination, and can retain control of $500 million in church property and assets.

St. Michael's Episcopal Church is one of Charleston's most famous and historic churches, and part of a group of South Carolina parishes that seceded from the national Episcopal Church. RNS file photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is one of Charleston’s most famous and historic churches, and part of a group of South Carolina parishes that seceded from the national Episcopal Church. RNS file photo by Kevin Eckstrom.

The Charleston-based Diocese of South Carolina voted to secede in 2012 after the national church accused its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, of abandoning the church and taking his diocese with him. The diocese said it helped form the national church in 1789, and was not legally bound to stay.

Lawrence insisted he and the 38 parishes that followed him out of the national church comprised the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The 30 parishes that remained part of the national church sued, asking a judge to determine who could legally claim the name “Episcopal” and who controlled the property.

On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the national church has “no provisions which state that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership.” The diocese was chartered in 1785, four years before the national church.

“With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Goodstein ruled.

Goodstein’s decision affects the fates of some of Charleston’s most iconic churches, whose towering steeples and colonial charm helped earn Charleston the nickname “the Holy City.”

The ruling follows similar decisions in Fort Worth, Texas, and Quincy, Ill., in which judges have ruled in favor of breakaway dioceses, even as most courts have said the property of individual breakaway parishes belongs to the denomination.

The national church allows same-sex blessings and gay bishops, but Lawrence said the decades-long battles over sexuality were just a “distraction” in the South Carolina fight.

mark lawrence

South Carolina Episcopal Bishop Mark Lawrence. RNS photo courtesy of Diocese of South Carolina.

“This has never been about exclusion,” he said in a statement. “Our churches, our diocese, are open to all. It’s about the freedom to practice and proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us.”

The parishes that remain loyal to the national denomination, known as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, plan to appeal Goodstein’s ruling, with its chief lawyer, Thomas S. Tisdale, calling the ruling “not unexpected.”

“We have understood from the beginning that this lawsuit was mounted after years of planning by individuals who were intent upon taking the diocese and its property out of The Episcopal Church,” spokeswoman Holly Behre said. “We have also understood that defending ourselves will be a long legal process.”

A separate suit in federal court accuses Lawrence of “false advertising” by “continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese.”

A spokeswoman for the national denomination, based in New York, declined to comment on either case.

YS/AMB END ECKSTROM

About the author

Kevin Eckstrom

Kevin Eckstrom joined the Religion News Service staff in 2000 and became editor-in-chief in 2006.

7 Comments

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  • The comparative number of parishes mentioned in this story of the competing South Carolina groups is deceptive, suggesting that they are close (38 to 30) in size. Check your figures. At the time of the November 2012 separation, roughly 80 percent of the laity chose to leave the Episcopal Church. Only about a dozen congregations chose to stay with the national church, and they had about 20 percent of the lay people of the diocese. Since then, the group loyal to the national church, called the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, has organized a number of small worshipping groups, most meeting in rented or donated space. A parish is defined as a self-supporting congregation of at least 100 adult members. Fewer than half of the 30 “parishes” of TECSC meet that definition. The loyal group is also heavily subsidized financially by the national church, without whose help it might not be viable.

  • It wasn’t about Gays.

    Right…and the foundings of the Southern Baptist Convention and Methodist Episcopal Church, South, were not about slavery. Nope, not at all.

  • The tipping point may have been same-sex “marriage” as the national church has departed far from the historic faith and the 39 articles. But nevertheless, freedom to associate or disassociate should be upheld, as should the ownership of the property by the local congregations. I was raised in the Episcopal church and it has departed so far, I would never return to any congregation affiliated or associated with the apostate national body.

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