A sharply divided court reverses portions of the lower court ruling
COLUMBIA, S.C. (August 2, 2017) – In a 77 page opinion, the South Carolina Supreme Court today reversed portions of an earlier lower court ruling. In February 2015, circuit court Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina, its trustees and the 50 parishes — representing 80 percent of the members — that disassociated with the Diocese successfully withdrew from The Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012, taking all their property, including churches, symbols and other assets. The ruling was the result of a three-week trial in 2014.
That court found that “the Constitution and Canons of TEC have no provision which states that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership.” This ruling found that had there been such a provision, it would have violated the diocese’s “constitutionally protected right” to freedom of association. “With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Judge Goodstein wrote.
In a complicated ruling consisting of five separate opinions, the S.C. Supreme Court today ruled that parishes which had “acceded” to the national church’s ‘Dennis canon’ are subject to a trust interest on their property by the denomination. Eight congregations that had not so acceded were judged to have full rights to retain their property.
The dissenting justices expressed concern regarding the long term implications of this decision. Former Chief Justice Jean Toal stated that the court should have relied on “over three hundred years of settled trust and property law… I believe the effect of the majority’s decision is to strip a title owner of its property…” on the basis of actions that do not create a trust interest under South Carolina law. In concurring with Justice Toal, Justice Kittredge observed of other church properties where there is affiliation with a national organization, based on this ruling, “if you think your property ownership is secure, think again.”
This current litigation became necessary when TEC attempted to wrongly remove Bishop Lawrence, and the Diocese, in response, elected to disassociate from TEC. At that time a small group, of TEC loyalists who had been preparing for this attempted removal began an intentional campaign of using the Diocesan Seal and other service marks of the Diocese. They began to function as if they were the Diocese of South Carolina. To maintain its identity required that the Diocese defend that identity.
Lead counsel for the Diocese, Alan Runyan, said the lead opinion and concurring’s decision is inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent involving church property disputes. Legal counsel continues to review a lengthy and complicated ruling comprised of five separate opinions.