Episcopal Church Loses Big in Landmark Court Decision

The Diocese of South Carolina won a historic case against The Episcopal Church at the Dorchester County, South Carolina, courthouse.
The Diocese of South Carolina won a historic case against The Episcopal Church at the Dorchester County, South Carolina, courthouse. (Diocese of South Carolina)

A nearly two-year odyssey that has "taken its toll spiritually, financially" has come to an end for The Episcopal Church's Diocese of South Carolina. On Tuesday, a South Carolina Circuit Court judge ruled that the diocese can leave the denomination and take with it all its property, including church buildings, symbols and other assets totaling over a half billion dollars, according to the diocese's website.

Diocese of South Carolina Bishop Mark Lawrence says the separation from the TEC has been coming for quite some due to several "theological differences," including what constitutes a marriage. The Diocese of South Carolina has taken a more conservative approach to that subject while the national church leans more to the liberal side.

To read more about the diocese's position, click here for a story written by Diocese of South Carolina Rev. Canon Jim Lewis for the Charleston Mercury.

The Diocese of South Carolina separated from the denomination in 2012, suing to protect its property and the use of the diocesan name.

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"It's all a question of church polity," Bishop Lawrence said. "We've been on a collision course with the Episcopal Church for 20 years for issues such as trustworthiness of the holy Scriptures, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, issues of anthropology—including what is a human being—questions of marriage and who receives the sacraments. All of those things are of theological concern to us."

In 2012, the Diocese of South Carolina disassociated itself from the TEC after the TEC "improperly attempted to remove" Lawrence from his position.

"They attacked me over issues of the church," Lawrence said. "But what we're dealing with is their changes in theological positions. We're dealing with the revision of what the church teaches, the revision of church morality, polity and governance, the constitutional procedures of the church. They were taking actions contrary to the constitution of the Episcopal Church. In essence, they were running roughshod over their own constitution."

In a 46-page opinion released Tuesday, South Carolina Circuit Court judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the diocese, the trustees of the diocese and 36 parishes had successfully withdrawn from the TEC. In the decision, Goodstein wrote that the diocese and its churches are "the owners of their real, personal and intellectual property" in which the national church has no legal interest.

The ruling is the result of a three-week trial in the summer of 2014 in which over 50 witnesses testified.

The diocese's website revealed that, during the trial, the diocese demonstrated that it existed long before TEC was established—and that it was one of the dioceses that founded the denomination in 1789. It also proved that every diocese is free to associate with a denomination of its choosing.

The story on the diocese's website says that since 2003, the Episcopal Church has lost more than 17 percent of its members and has experienced a decline of nearly 24 percent in average Sunday attendance. The denomination has spent close to $40 million in the last few years on lawsuits to prevent dioceses from leaving.

Bishop Lawrence said he fully anticipates the TEC to appeal the decision to a higher level.

"It's over with at this level, but it's not over entirely," Lawrence said. "We feel very good about this order rendered by the judge and that it was in keeping with South Carolina law.

"Certainly, this whole thing has been a challenge, a heavy burden. But in the midst of it all, we have kept Christ central and the mission of Christ central to our common life. There has been a heroic effort by our clergy and lay leaders to do that. We have tried to keep our mission of making Christ known and making disciples and evangelizing communities."

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