Oral arguments were held yesterday in Columbia, S.C., and though one cannot determine how the justices will rule based on their questions, the justices seemed open to the idea of reversing previous judgments that went against the Episcopal Church. It should be noted that the makeup of the court has changed considerably in the three years since the SC Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing a Pawley’s Island parish to leave the Episcopal Church.
From the Post and Courier;
In spirited exchanges, several justices questioned the breakaway group’s attorney, Alan Runyan, and took issue with the trial judge’s refusal to allow evidence examining whether The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical religious body that could forbid a bishop or an entire diocese from leaving without its permission.
When the case went to trial in summer 2014, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein refused to allow evidence related to whether the national church is a hierarchical body. However, she then ruled it is congregational in its governing structure with power flowing from the bottom up and that the parishes and diocese had the right to leave at will.
“This case was tried in a rather one-sided way on this issue,” Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal said. But if the case boils down to property rights issues rather than church governance, “What difference does it make?” she asked.
“You have to know what type of animal you’re wrestling,” responded Columbia attorney Blake Hewitt, who argued for The Episcopal Church and area parishes that remain a part of it.
Justice Kaye G. Hearn said if the national church is hierarchical, it already has ruled on who is the rightful bishop of its diocese.
“The national church has chosen (Charles) vonRosenberg as bishop” of its local diocese, Hearn said.
Several justices also noted Lawrence promised allegiance to the national church during his controversial election “while he had his fingers crossed behind his back,” Hewitt said.
Earlier this year, the continuing diocese offered a resolution of the dispute. In that proposed settlement, parishes which voted to leave would keep their property, but all diocesan properties and assets (estimated to be worth $500 million), including the diocesan camp, would be returned to the Episcopal Church. The Lawrence-led group refused that offer, preferring to take their chances in court, claiming that organizations (such as parishes and dioceses) have the same rights of association as individuals.
The State Newspaper also has coverage on yesterday’s oral arguments. Links to each side’s case are available below
Video of the entire oral argument is available (the embedded title reflects the views of the maker of the video):