Lawsuit Trial concludes

  • Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Testimony in the ongoing lawsuit between the national Episcopal Church, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and the Diocese of South Carolina wrapped July 25.

The Diocese, which filed suit against the church in January 2013 and maintains that it legally broke away from the church in 2012, brought suit against the church in January 2013 over who is the rightful owner of the Diocese name, seals and symbols – and some $500 million in property and assets.

The Diocese has for some time disagreed with the national church on matters of theology, morality, and polity, which ultimately led to its decision to break away from the Episcopal Church in 2012, according to Diocese officials. While such issues as same-sex unions and ordination of gay clergy have caused some friction, Diocese officials say it left the church only after the church attempted to remove Lawrence from his post as Bishop of the Diocese -- some nine years after the church appointed its first openly gay Bishop – an action the Diocese believed to be outside of the church’s authority.

The Diocese has asserted that it has always operated as an entity separate from the church in daily operations and internal governance. The diocese has existed as a not-for profit corporation since 1973.

“This has been an exhausting ordeal for everyone,” noted Rev. Jim Lewis, Canon of the Ordinary for the Diocese of S.C.

The Episcopal Church maintains that the Diocese is part of the church and as such is subject to church law under the First Amendment, not state corporate law. The church says that 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. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, under its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Charles G. vonRosenberg, is the diocese that is recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion.

Judge Diane Goodstein, who is trying the case, stated several times during the trial proceedings that South Carolina law does not permit her to consider arguments that the Episcopal Church is a hierarchical institution that has the authority to prevent dioceses from leaving the denomination.

Goodstein told the court that she would be rendering a decision later in the year.

Holly Behre, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, said that the argument does come down to a constitutional question. That is, if one applies secular law to the situation, then that essentially allows the state to direct the actions of the church.

“No one is forcing those who wish to leave the church to stay,” she said. “But the contention is that the church should have final authority over a diocese or a parish that came into being as a sub-unit of the church – not secular law.”

In fact, concern over the issue is such that the the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Methodist Church joined the Episcopal Church in South Carolina as amici curiae, or “friends of the court,” regarding a similar situation that occurred within the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, Texas, in 2008. Amicus briefs are filed by those who are not parties to an appeal, but have a strong interest in the subject matter.

Ultimately, no matter which side prevails in the lawsuit, people on all sides agree that no one will win if there can be no reconciliation.

“I find it heartbreaking that this has happened – there are people on every side of the issues and I have friends on all sides who I love deeply,” Rev. Rick Luoni of St. George’s Epsicopal Church in Summerville said. “I have no animosity, just heartbreak. I pray for reconciliation; I pray for love; I pray that hearts and minds will be opened and will allow God to lead us to something beyond anything we could imagine.”

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