South Carolina Supreme Court rules property belongs to The Episcopal Church


The South Carolina Supreme Court has issued its opinion in the property dispute between a breakaway diocese and The Episcopal Church. For both parties, the decision was a long time coming. The Court heard the case nearly two years ago.

AP has the story:

South Carolina’s top court has ruled that dozens of parishes that split with The Episcopal Church over theological issues including the ordination of gay priests cannot take valuable property with them.

The state Supreme Court made that decision Wednesday for 29 breakaway parishes that left the national church in 2012.

The Post and Courier:

In a highly anticipated ruling, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that 29 local parishes that left The Episcopal Church cannot take their property with them, a decision that could set the stage for a massive exchange of historic church properties worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

However, several parishes that broke away from the national church can take their properties with them because they never agreed to let the national church hold it in trust, unlike the others, a majority of justices ruled.

After hearing arguments in the case almost two years ago, the justices issued a complex 77-page divided opinion that leaves some of the Holy City’s most historic church properties in the hands of The Episcopal Church. Now-retired Chief Justice Costa Pleicones wrote in the lead opinion that he would reverse the entire lower court order that allowed parishes that left the national church to take church properties, the diocesan name and identifying marks with them.

St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center is included in the properties that must be returned to the Episcopal Church.

Both parties have 15 days to ask for a rehearing.

There is also a long-stalled case before a federal court over trademarks of the diocese. It is expected there will be movement in that case now that the state court has ruled. However, writing for the majority on the state Supreme Court, Acting Justice Pleicones states “the trial court erred in holding that the Respondents’ state-registered trademarks prevail over TEC’s federally-protected trademarks, and therefore would also reverse that portion of the order. ”

At the heart of Pleicones’ opinion is the Court’s earlier decision in Court’s decision in All Saints Parish Waccamaw v. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, 385 S.C. 428, 685 S.E.2d 163 (2009) (All Saints) and application of the Supreme Court of the United States case Jones v. Wolf. Pleicones notes that following All Saints the diocese took steps that led to its breakaway from the Episcopal Church. Regarding All Saints he writes,

I would now overrule All Saints to the extent it held the Dennis Canon and the 1987 amendment to the Lower Diocese’s Constitution were ineffective in creating trusts over property held by or for the benefit of any parish, mission, or congregation in the Lower Diocese. The result in All Saints was obtained without considering the religious documents and texts, including the Diocesan Constitution, which formed the foundation of the relationships between All Saints Parish, the Lower Diocese, and TEC, and by ignoring the premise of Jones that a hierarchical church could direct the disposition of property in case of a schism with a minimal burden. Specifically, All Saints failed to acknowledge that, as a matterof church governance and administration, All Saints Parish had agreed to be bound by the “trust terms” found in the Dennis Canon and the Diocesan Constitution through its voluntary promises of allegiance, upon which the hierarchical church is founded, and by its conduct in remaining affiliated with TEC after 1979, and with the Lower Diocese after 1987. All Saints‘ failure to consider the entirety of these ecclesiastical relationships, the governing documents, and the parties’ conduct, aswell as the assurances given  the Jones‘ majority that a hierarchical church could direct the ownership of property in the case of a schism, led to a violation of the command of Pearson that a court look at the entirety of the dispute, including the hierarchal church’s constitution, canons, and rules, before determining whether the dispute can be resolved purely by the application of state law.

Our earlier reporting on the case:

June 15, 2015, Breakaway diocese rejects settlement

September 23, 2015, Supreme Court of SC hears case

A statement from the loyal diocese urges a pastoral response:

A Message from Bishop Adams:

The South Carolina Supreme Court today issued a ruling in our appeal of the state court decision in Dorchester County, and that decision is generally in favor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it. We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the Church.

This is a lengthy and detailed ruling, and our legal team and leadership will be studying it closely in the days ahead. It is important to note that the legal system allows for periods of judicial review and possible appeal, so it will be some time before we can say with certainty what the journey ahead will look like. Please be patient and know that we will keep you updated along the way as information becomes available to us.

As clergy and lay leaders, you are likely to have opportunities to respond to the ruling within your congregation, as well as to the wider public. As you consider what to say, please keep in mind that

– This ruling is one step on a longer journey and much is unknown at this point. Speculation will not be helpful.

– We can give thanks to God while avoiding excessive celebration. Kindness and graciousness are in order.

– Remember that our ultimate goal is reconciliation and unity, joining with our Lord in the desire that we all may be one.

– We ask for your ongoing prayer for the life of the Church in the service of Christ.

In the next few days, we will continue to communicate with the clergy and lay leadership about what is taking place. A formal statement from the Bishop’s Office will be issued to the public later today. We anticipate calling a meeting soon for diocesan leadership to review the decision, receive legal advice and consider the next steps.

The breakaway diocese issued this response:

On August 2, 2017 the South Carolina Supreme Court announced their ruling in the case involving the Diocese of South Carolina, its trustees and 36 parishes.

The issues in this case are complicated and our legal counsel is reviewing the ruling, its implications and deliberating the appropriate response.

We ask for your patience and call on of the clergy, laity and friends of the diocese to keep the matter in prayer.

Added 8:33 PM – another statement from the breakaway diocese.


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Kevin Montgomery

I hope that some of the initial fires have died down and passions have cooled a bit. It was important for the principle of property ownership by the remaining Diocese of SC to be established, but of course, they can't realistically fill or maintain all of those buildings. Perhaps now there can be some kind of resolution that benefits both current Episcopalians and the former ones and helps further the mission of the church in different ways.

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Zandy Jordan
Zandy Jordan

What is status of All Saints, Hilton

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Eric Bonetti

Based on my rushed reading of the decision, it appears to belong to TEC

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Brian Taylor

All Saints Church stayed with the TEC and is part of what is now called the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. St. Luke's on the other end of the island had followed Bishop Lawrence.

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Zandy Jordan
Zandy Jordan

Thank you! I misspoke, meant to question if St. Luke's property was affected by ruling or were they on short list of those who left but keep there property.

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Ernest Bowen
Ernest Bowen

This is really good news.

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dave thomas
dave thomas

It is good this is getting settled in SC. It was obvious from the beginning that there were several parishes whose original deeds contained wording that would allow them to retain their property, but those were exceptions to the rule.

I would think the real Diocese of SC would work out deals with the former Anglicans to purchase parish property in cases where a viable Episcopal congregation is absent or not large enough to maintain the building. They're previous offer to negotiate was ignored, but I think the disgruntled former Episcopalians will probably come to the table now that they are learning they can't just walk out and take everything with them.

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Eric Bonetti

I am glad to hear this. While I have some minor quibbles with the court's understanding of the accession clause, justice has been done.

Particularly appalling was Lawrence's disingenuous and unethical behavior prior to the split. And given reports that he may have intentionally wasted diocesan assets in order to pursue a poison pill strategy, I am okay with it if he is held personally liable.

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