Dozens of parishes that split from The Episcopal Church over theological issues including the ordination of gay priests cannot take valuable real estate with them, according to a split ruling issued Aug. 2 by South Carolina’s highest court.
The South Carolina Supreme Court decision settled some of the issues swirling in the wake of the 2012 departure of several dozen dioceses from The Episcopal Church. Attorneys on both sides of the long-awaited resolution were still reviewing it Wednesday afternoon and did not immediately comment.
The conservative Diocese of South Carolina, dating to 1785 and one of the original dioceses that joined to form the Episcopal Church, left the national church in 2012 amid differences over theological issues, including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays. The group has since affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, a group that formed in 2009.
Parishes in the region that didn’t leave the national church formed a diocese now known as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
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The conservative diocese sued in efforts to protect its identity, the diocesan seal and other symbols it uses, and $500 million in church property, including the individual parishes’ holdings, as well as large properties including an Episcopal church camp in the Charleston area.
A circuit judge sided with the diocese in 2014, ruling it owned its name, symbols and property.
But on Wednesday, acting Justice Costa Pleicones wrote in the lead opinion that the judge had improperly ruled she was required “to ignore the ecclesiastical setting in which these disputes arose.” The trial court judge had viewed The Episcopal Church incorrectly as a congregational entity, with no structure to prevent individual parishes from leaving, Pleicones noted. The justice said the church is a hierarchical organization, with a structure.
Under that construct, only a handful of departed parishes — those that didn’t sign onto an agreement allowing the national church to hold their properties in trust — should be allowed to keep their land and properties, he wrote.
Each of the court’s five justices wrote individual opinions, a rare move that shows the different viewpoints in the complex case. Justices split 2-2 on intellectual property issues, leaving in place the trial judge’s ruling that the breakaway diocese could keep the Diocese of South Carolina name, marks and seals.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina had offered a settlement to resolve the dispute, saying it would allow parishes that left to keep their individual church property, regardless of whether they remained part of The Episcopal Church.
Both sides have 15 days to ask the Supreme Court to rehear the case if they choose. A federal lawsuit is still pending over allegations that the bishop of the breakaway parishes is committing false advertising by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese.