Defense testimony begins in Episcopal Church Lawsuit

  • Friday, July 18, 2014

Testimony for the defense began Tuesday afternoon in the lawsuit between the two groups both claiming the mantle of the Episcopal Church — the national Episcopal Church and the Lowcountry’s Diocese of South Carolina.

The defendants, the national Episcopal Church and its local representatives, presented three witnesses Tuesday.

The trial, which began July 7, pits the Diocese of South Carolina against the Episcopal Church of South Carolina and the national Episcopal Church. Among issues being contested are the rightful ownership of the Diocese name, seals, and symbols — as well as some $500 million in property and assets.

The Diocese, which filed suit against the church in January 2013, maintains it has always operated as an entity separate from the national church in day-to-day operations and internal governance. The diocese has operated as a corporation since 1973.

The national church, on the other hand, maintains that the Diocese is part of the church and is subject to church law under the First Amendment, not state corporate law. The church says the Diocese’s contention that it controls the diocese as a nonprofit corporation under South Carolina law is incorrect, and that the Church’s right of religious freedom under the First Amendment to determine its leadership and governance according to church law should be upheld.

Tuesday afternoon the defendant Episcopal Church began presenting its case, calling several witnesses, according to a release from the church. The first witness, Armand Derfner, a civil rights attorney, appeared as an expert witness to highlight key points in the defense’s case, including:

• Fiduciary duty: Derfner maintained that Mark Lawrence, Bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, took an oath which was a condition for his becoming a bishop of the diocese. The oath included a promise to abide by the “discipline” of The Episcopal Church.

• The intent of the incorporator: whether those who incorporated the churches and the diocese intended to establish the purpose of the corporation and whether a later bishop could seek to amend that.

• The capacity to convey property and the issue of “good standing”: Whether individuals were in good standing when they took certain actions, such as issuing quit-claim deeds, would have a bearing on whether their actions were effective or not.

According to the release, Warren Mersereau, a member of plaintiff Church of Our Savior in John’s Island, also testified about his experiences. Mersereau testified he was told at one point that the church was not in the business of promoting the Episcopal Church; later when he printed pro-church information in the newsletter, he was threatened with disciplinary action, he said. He also testified he had signed a complaint against Lawrencea.

Testimony was scheduled to start again Wednesday morning.

Judge Diane Goodstein, who is trying the case, said she wanted the proceedings to conclude by July 18. However, upon hearing that the defense might need to call up to a dozen more witnesses, Goodstein said she would look into making the necessary arrangements to continue the case into next week if that became necessary, according to the release.

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