The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC) and The Episcopal Church today [March 20, 2019] filed a petition asking the South Carolina Supreme Court to order the Dorchester County Circuit Court to enforce the high court’s 2017 decision and return control of diocesan property and 29 parish properties to The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, TECSC.
The Petition for Writ of Mandamus asks the high court to require Circuit Judge Edgar W. Dickson to take action and execute the decision that the justices remitted to Judge Dickson 16 months ago.
The disputed properties currently are under the control of a group led by Bishop Mark Lawrence that left The Episcopal Church in 2012 and then sued the church in an attempt to keep the property. The delay in enforcing the high court’s decision is continuing to cause harm to TECSC, the petition says.
“The extraordinary remedy sought [a writ of mandamus] is therefore necessary given the long delay and misdirected undertaking of the Circuit Court to attempt to revisit the merits, while the property to which Petitioners are entitled is being wasted, misused, and depleted,” the petition says.
“That property includes unique real estate, historic buildings, and artifacts that cannot be replaced, along with accounts held in trust that are being depleted as this litigation is being improperly prolonged,” the petition says. With no action taken by the court on requests for enforcement, “petitioners have no adequate remedy other than to seek a writ from this Court.”
The Charleston Business Journal further reports:
The S.C. Supreme Court’s August ruling stated that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, which broke away from The Episcopal Church in 2012, must return church property to The Episcopal Church. The Diocese of South Carolina has appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to decide in the coming weeks whether to hear the case.
The Episcopal Church asked U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in March to step in and enforce the state court’s decision, but Gergel ruled last month that a better solution for the church would be to take legal possession of the parish property rather than ask the federal court to assist in property management.
He also wrote in his decision that a better place to ask for enforcement of the decision was the Dorchester County Court of Common Pleas, “where these issues have been litigated for over five years.”
This latest filing follows a request in the summer of 2018 by The Episcopal Church and TECSC for “a full accounting of all assets held by a group that broke away from the church in 2012.” Despite the courts’ having ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church (including a refusal by the Supreme Court in June of 2018 to hear the case at all), the actual process of returning property to TEC and TECSC is going to be a complicated one. As the Charleston Post and Courier reported at the time of SCOTUS’ refusal to hear the case last June:
With breakaway parishioners still worshipping in the same buildings they have called their church homes for decades, questions about the practical effect of the courtroom decisions still must be answered. The properties include historic buildings such as St. Michael’s Church in downtown Charleston.
. . . Even with [the June 11, 2018] development in the property dispute, officials from both sides said it could take months for lingering issues to be ironed out.
A judge in the Dorchester County civil court that hosted the original trial will take on that task. The church last month asked the judge to put the properties under its ownership and to appoint an attorney to oversee the transition, said Chancellor Thomas Tisdale of the local Episcopal-affiliated diocese.
That transition might not be easy.
The breakaway diocese contended the conflicted nature of the state Supreme Court ruling “is virtually unenforceable.”
“There are many unresolved legal questions,” [Mark] Lawrence [bishop of the breakaway diocese] added.