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South Carolina Episcopalians ask state’s Supreme Court to take property case

South Carolina Episcopalians ask state’s Supreme Court to take property case

Because of legal decisions that have gone against the Episcopal loyalists, the breakaway group holds the name the Diocese of South Carolina.

Here’s the latest from loyalists, the Episcopal Diocese in South Carolina:

Episcopalians file appeal, ask SC Supreme Court to hear the case

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina has filed notice that it is appealing a judge’s decision to give a breakaway

group the name and property of The Episcopal Church diocese in eastern South Carolina, and has asked the South Carolina Supreme Court to take up the case in an effort to avoid expense and delay for all parties.

The notice of appeal was filed Tuesday with the state Court of Appeals in Columbia by The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. TECSC represents 30 congregations and about 7,000 Episcopalians who remain connected to The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion after a breakaway group announced it was leaving the church in November 2012.

A few months after the split, the breakaway group sued The Episcopal Church, and later added TECSC as a defendant, seeking control of all the diocesan property, the official name and seal, and the properties of the parishes who joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

That case went to trial in July 2014 in Circuit Court in St. George before Judge Diane S. Goodstein. In February, the judge ruled in favor of the breakaway group. Tuesday’s filing is an appeal of that decision.

Also on Tuesday, TECSC attorneys filed a “Motion to Certify” with the state Supreme Court, asking the high court to bypass the appeals court and hear the appeal, given the importance of the case and “the desire to streamline the litigation.”

The motion notes that there are more than 3 dozen plaintiffs in the breakaway group and a greater number of lawyers representing them, and asks the court to consider steps such as letting the parties provide documents to one another electronically, rather than with printed copies. The Episcopal Church has consented to the motion.

TECSC and The Episcopal Church earlier had asked Judge Goodstein to reconsider her February 3 order, a step that was necessary before it could be appealed. The 180-page Motion for Reconsideration took issue with “findings of fact” and conclusions in the 46-page order and cited dozens of instances in which the ruling doesn’t fully address evidence, makes incorrect statements, or fails to consider relevant points of law. The judge rejected the motion February 13, clearing the way for the appeal.

Documents filed March 24, 2015:

Posted by John B. Chilton

Image By Angr [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons


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Paul Powers

I might be over the 4-comment limit, but here’s a link to Judge Chupp’s 2011 ruling.

Paul Powers

The U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t taken up any of these cases so far, regardless of whether the state courts ruled in favor of the national church (in most of the cases involving TEC) or in favor of the local congregation (as in the case of a congregation in Louisiana that broke way from PCUSA). Differences among the state courts is less of a concern to SCOTUS than differences among the federal appellate courts.

Justice Blackmon’s statement about churches’ being able to establish trusts by amending their constitution is problematic because he cited no authority for that proposition, and trusts are a question of state law. In fact, as I recall, in the Virginia cases, the court found that the Dennis canon didn’t
create an express trust under Virginia law, and it based its ruling for TEC and the diocese on other grounds.

Richard Edward Helmer

“In states with Neutral Principles of law a diocese is free to leave – so long as it follows the by-laws of the non-profit corp and the local canons and constitution of the Diocese. Remember that, according the C&C, a diocese must already exist, have a constitution and canons, and then ask to be admitted to union with GC. Thus, legally, the diocese existed as an entity prior to being joined to GC. So, legally, it can separate from GC.”

I think this is the point that must be fully tested at the federal level. If this is true, then the Neutral Principles and local property laws trump the institutional law (canons) of the Church, and it can be argued that the State is interfering in the internal affairs of a religious institution. There is no church procedure for dioceses to depart General Convention/TEC, let alone alienate property from the wider church. As Bro David has pointed out, the so-called Dennis Canons have been made to stick in other cases.

Richard Edward Helmer

The lack of explicit “supremacy clause” in the Constitution of General Convention is, I believe, a red herring. The constitution makes it clear that dioceses and, by extension, their officers and subsidiaries are created, merged, and dissolved ultimately through the rules and processes of General Convention. In many ways, our system of polity is more hierarchical than that of the United States, so that drawing parallels with the state-federal relationship is specious.

Tobias Haller has a succinct essay on this point (http://blog.tobiashaller.net/2015/02/something-could-be-finer.html), and I quote a portion of it here:

‘The Episcopal Church is more hierarchical than the Federal Government, to which it bears only a passing resemblance. It is not a confederation, but unitary — ultimately the General Convention is the final authority, and the Oath of Conformity “binds” all clergy to the doctrine, discipline and worship of the Church as determined by the General Convention; and diocesan conventions are not permitted to alter the General Constitution on their own, nor are they given a direct voice in its composition or amendment, save through their deputies to the General Convention — as the Constitution states at present, and as was proposed in 1785, ratified in 1789. Amendments are sent to the dioceses and their conventions for information, not approval, and ratified (or not) at the next session of the General Convention, by that General Convention. There is no higher court of appeal.’

I agree that state courts might disagree based on their states’ application of neutral principles, but I think they have to cherry pick our Church’s constitution and canons to permit breakaways to duck the discipline of our highest governing polity, and courts at the federal level will likely need to settle this question.

Philip Snyder

Richard – You may be right regarding canon law, but the Church must still obey the civil law in all things that do not pertain to the faith. For example, the Church was able to serve wine during prohibition because the Church had always used wine for Communion. But the Church buildings must still pass the building code inspections and laws regarding handicapped access and parking. The ownership of property is not a matter of Canon Law. It is a matter of civil law and the civil laws in Texas, Illinois, and South Carolina require actual instruments of trust before a trust is established and Texas requires that trust to be specifically labeled “irrevocable” for it to be irrevocable. In states with Neutral Principles of law a diocese is free to leave – so long as it follows the by-laws of the non-profit corp and the local canons and constitution of the Diocese. Remember that, according the C&C, a diocese must already exist, have a constitution and canons, and then ask to be admitted to union with GC. Thus, legally, the diocese existed as an entity prior to being joined to GC. So, legally, it can separate from GC.

IN SC, the congregations held title to their own church buildings and the courts there ruled that congregations were free to leave the diocese and retain their property. However, in Fort Worth (and Dallas), the diocese actually held title to the property. Thus, the congregations are not free to leave as they don’t actually own the buildings and grounds.

Philip Snyder

I seriously doubt that SCOTUS will take TEC’s appeals as they have denied cert several times in these cases. If they felt there was a strong urgency to prevent injustice, they probably would have granted cert already.

Bro David

When the cases get to the US Supreme Court, as they likely will because the USSC does take church property cases, as it has before and as it did in Jones v Wolf, we will see what state laws do and don’t apply to a hierarchical church’s situation. We shall also see why the USSC in Jones v Wolf felt that something as simple as the Denis Canon was sufficient to determine the issues in future church property cases.

You may be correct Philip and you may be wrong. We can only wait and see.

Paul Woodrum

Deja vu!

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