Ruling on Pawleys Island: TEC and DioSC lose

In the case of All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. The Protestant Episcopal Church, the Supreme Court of South Carolina ruled today against the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina. The court said that All Saints Parish is free to separate from the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina and join with the Church of Rwanda and the Anglican Mission in America.

No comments yet from either the Diocese or the Episcopal Church, both of whom, we are sure are weighing the implications for their own immediate futures. When official reaction comes in, we will update.

The previous Bishop of South Carolina, Edward Salmon wrote to the diocese in 2003 after the All Saints vestry voted to remove the parish from the Episcopal Church:

When a vestry of a parish in the diocese votes to take action to leave the church, they cannot then hold an office as a vestry of the church from which they have voted to depart. After prayerful consideration and consultation with the Chancellor of the diocese, I then proceeded to exercise my canonical responsibility as Bishop. This is a matter of deep regret about which I felt I had no choice.

The ruling is here.

The state Supreme Court overturned a lower court that had ruled in favor of a "minority" vestry and officers who remained loyal to the Diocese of South Carolina and the Episcopal Church.

In making their decision, the Court completely set aside any principle of "deference" to a denomination's polity and followed only a "neutral principles of law" approach and thus avoiding the role of polity or the ramifications of a parish's past adherence to the Constitution and Canons of both the Diocese and the Episcopal Church. The court looked only at the trust and property issues involved.

It is with the Pearson rule in mind that we now turn to the two issues before us in this appeal. We remain mindful of the First Amendment and its protections of religious liberty. Nonetheless, adjudication of this matter does not require us to wade into the waters of religious law, doctrine, or polity. We find that the Diocese and ECUSA organized their affairs with All Saints Parish in a manner that makes the complete resolution of the questions presented achievable through the application of neutral principles of property, trust, and corporate law.

Specifically, the Court held that in this case, the Dennis Canon has no force because of a 1903 quit-claim deed between the Diocese and the Parish written to clear up "doubt over the status of the congregation’s incorporation, the Diocese directed it to re-incorporate as “All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc.”

The ruling concludes:

[I.C, II. first para, Conclusion] ...we hold that neither the 2000 Notice nor the Dennis Canon has any legal effect on title to the All Saints congregation’s property. A trust “may be created by either declaration of trust or by transfer of property….” Dreher v. Dreher, 370 S.C. 75, 80, 634 S.E.2d 646, 648 (2006). It is an axiomatic principle of law that a person or entity must hold title to property in order to declare that it is held in trust for the benefit of another or transfer legal title to one person for the benefit of another. The Diocese did not, at the time it recorded the 2000 Notice, have any interest in the congregation’s property. Therefore, the recordation of the 2000 Notice could not have created a trust over the property.

For the aforementioned reasons, we hold that title to the property at issue is held by All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc., the Dennis Canons had no legal effect on the title to the congregation’s property, and the 2000 Notice should be removed from the Georgetown County records.
...
Turning to the 2005 Action, we find that the trial court applied the deference approach, determined that the congregation was part of a hierarchical organization, and deferred to the Diocese’s ecclesiastical authority’s determination that members of the minority vestry were the true officers of All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc. We disagree....

CONCLUSION

For the foregoing reasons, we reverse the trial court’s decision with respect to both the 2000 Action and the 2005 Action.

Read the whole ruling here.

Comments (4)

Years ago I was in the Diocese of Michigan when Mariners Church left the Diocese over Prayer Book revision and ordination of women. The diocese lost in initial action and on appeal because of specific and unique characteristics of the founding of Mariners Church and its initial accession to the Diocese. Because of that suit, the Diocese lost the battle. However, they won the war: another five or six congregations were considering departing, and knew they could not because they did not possess the specific and unique characteristics.

I'm not an attorney, and won't make claims about what might happen with further appeal; or even whether the Supreme Court of the United States would hear this, since the Federal precedents are cited. However, I wonder whether the 1903 Quit Claim Deed is a similar sort of specific and unique characteristic. Whether such quit claim deeds were common among congregations would make a big difference.

Now, I would also wonder whether there were grounds for appeal to Washington in that accepting the right of the congregation to vote on such a decision is accepting a ecclesiological position. In any case, I'm sure better informed minds could say more to both of my questions.

Marshall Scott

It will be interesting to see how this affects the Diocese of SC's level of disengagement from TEC. On one hand, the Diocese has lost this particular case, but I wonder if they could later use this decision as a precedent in trying to keep the church property if (when?) they decide to leave TEC.

I'm not a lawyer, but...:

It seems to me that the state Supreme Court is choosing to take a narrow interpretation of the US Supreme Court's opinion Jones v. Wolf 1979,

http://supreme.justia.com/us/443/595/case.html

That opinion says, "Through appropriate reversionary clauses and trust provisions, religious societies can specify what is to happen to church property in the event of a particular contingency, or what religious body will determine the ownership in the event of a schism or doctrinal controversy. In this manner, a religious organization can ensure that a dispute over the ownership of church property will be resolved in accord with the desires of the members."

Further it says, "At any time before the dispute erupts, the parties can ensure, if they so desire, that the faction loyal to the hierarchical church will retain the church property. They can modify the deeds or the corporate charter to include a right of reversion or trust in favor of the general church. Alternatively, the constitution of the general church can be made to recite an express trust in favor of the denominational church. The burden involved in taking such steps will be minimal. And the civil courts will be bound to give effect to the result indicated by the parties, provided it is embodied in some legally cognizable form."

(My emphasis.)

With the passage of the Dennis Canon "the constitution of the general church [made] made to recite an express trust in favor of the denominational church."

The state Supreme Court's ruling seems too broad. It turns the US Supreme Court's opinion into a Catch 22 for hierarchical churches. If the state court's interpretation of Wolf v. Jones stands, then the US Supreme Court opinion is in violation of the First Amendment, and today's court needs to repair that. In short, it looks to me as if there are strong grounds for appeal to SCOTUS.

Having read the decision (with the assistance of my sister the lawyer), I believe that the SCOSC erred in their determination regarding the validity of the diocese's 2000 filing regarding the Dennis Canon and also in their decision regarding the minority congregation's vestry. In light of the SCOTUS rulings in Jones v Wolf 1979, I think that it would overturn this decision upon review.

If memory serves me, the Dennis Canon derives specifically from the court's instruction in Jones v Wolf. Now comes the SCOSC to set aside that determination of just how hierarchical churches should order their affairs?

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