The Diocese of South Carolina, led by Bishop Mark Lawrence, has called the recent federal complaint filed by the local diocese of The Episcopal Church an attempt to nullify a state circuit court order and seize control of the independent diocese’s identity and properties.
“The national church’s suit is an apparent effort to move a state property rights case to a court that might support the denomination’s seizure of local assets,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary. “It seems to be more focused on undermining the state court’s authority and prolonging the litigation than addressing the underlying issue.”
Last week, the continuing local diocese of The Episcopal Church, temporarily called “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina” because of a court injunction forbidding it from using the independent diocese’s name and marks, filed suit in U.S. District Court against Lawrence in a counter-offensive meant to resolve the identity dispute.
Lawrence’s group had sued The Episcopal Church in January. Both sides in the dispute claim rights to the diocesan name, seal and property.
Matt McGill, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing the continuing diocese and its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, said the federal case is not about property but, rather, “Lawrence’s false statements that he is bishop of the diocese. Bishop Lawrence was free to leave the church, but he can’t then still claim to be bishop of the diocese.”
McGill said Lawrence’s defense rests on the idea that The Episcopal Church is not a hierarchical church, and that the diocese has always been autonomous or independent. But the courts have repeatedly ruled that the church is hierarchical and its members subject to canon law, McGill said.
“My hope is that this lawsuit will resolve that this diocese is part of The Episcopal Church and that Bishop vonRosenberg is in charge,” McGill said.
The continuing diocese’s suit was filed in federal court because it relies on trademark law and First Amendment principles, McGill said.
The independent diocese noted in a press release that The Episcopal Church has resorted to legal action often in recent years.
“(The church) has filed approximately 80 lawsuits against parishes and dioceses that have disassociated from the denomination in recent years,” the release stated. “The denomination, which has lost more than 17 percent of its members since 2000, has been aggressive in using the law to seize property from disassociated parishes, effectively using the threat of legal action to discourage further disassociation over theological reasons.”
Of the diocese’s original 71 parishes and missions, 46 have voted to remain aligned with Lawrence.