A federal judge on Monday ruled that a lawsuit filed in January by the now independent Diocese of South Carolina should remain where it is — in state court.
The Episcopal Church, which filed its own suit in federal court against Bishop Mark Lawrence, had argued that the state case should also be decided by the federal court since the case had broad First Amendment implications concerning church governance and autonomy. But U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck disagreed.
“If this Court determined that a case may be removed based on federal question jurisdiction whenever a defendant attributed a federal constitutional issue not alleged or advanced in a well-pleaded complaint, federal question jurisdiction could potentially be expanded to all cases containing tacit First Amendment issues,” Houck stated in his decision.
Lawyers for The Episcopal Church reluctantly submitted to the decision.
“We are obviously disappointed with the result, but we are confident in our legal position going forward,” said Thomas Tisdale Jr., chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
The state suit, filed by leaders of more than 30 parishes who disassociated with The Episcopal Church over theological and administrative disagreements, seeks control of the name, seal and properties of the diocese.
A separate federal suit before Houck, filed by the church, argues that Lawrence has misused his title and authority, that the diocese can have but one bishop, and that bishop is the Rt. Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, elected this spring.
Officials of the independent diocese praised Houck's decision.
“We are very pleased that Judge Houck remanded the case to state court,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to Bishop Lawrence. “The issues involved are essentially those of legal identity and are wholly determined by state law, so the most appropriate place to settle is clearly in state court, where we first took the matter.”
The court of South Carolina Circuit Judge Diane S. Goodstein will retain the case.
Matthew D. McGill, an attorney for the continuing diocese affiliated with the Episcopal Church, said he was hopeful that Goodstein would agree that the government should not act in ways that wrongly compromise church autonomy.
“The federal court recognized that The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church and we hope that the state court will recognize the First Amendment right of all such churches to organize and administer their affairs without government interference,” McGill said. “Our federal litigation against Bishop Lawrence continues and we hope soon will confirm that he is no longer the Bishop of the Diocese because he left the church of which the Diocese is a part.”