CHARLESTON — For the second time in recent months, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck is weighing whether issues arising from the acrimonious Episcopal schism in eastern South Carolina belong in federal court.
As two bishops sat with their attorneys on either side of his Charleston courtroom, Houck heard about an hour of arguments Thursday on one bishop’s request for an injunction against the other.
Charles vonRosenberg, the bishop of parishes remaining with the national Episcopal Church, wants the court to block Mark Lawrence, the bishop of churches that left last year, from using the name and the symbols of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
The conservative Diocese of South Carolina last year separated from the more liberal national Episcopal Church over a variety of theological issues, including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays. The breakaway churches sued in state court to protect the use of the diocesan name and half a billion dollars’ worth of property.
In a consent order, meaning both sides agreed to it, signed by a state judge earlier this year, the churches that left were given the right to use the name and symbols.
The congregations that remained with the national church had tried to move the case to federal court. But Houck ruled in June that the First Amendment is not a main point in the case and sending it to federal court would disrupt the balance between state and federal courts.
Attorneys were back before him on Thursday.
Matthew McGill, representing vonRosenberg, said the bishop is not a party to the state suit and Lawrence’s use of diocesan symbols involves federal trademark law.
He said vonRosenberg “has a right to a federal forum for a federal claim.”
Houck asked what would happen if he issued a stay and then the sides could see if resolving state trademark issues would also settle the federal question.
“The state case is about property and corporate control,” McGill responded. “This case is about Bishop vonRosenberg and his ability to carry out his spiritual mission because another person claims to be bishop.”
“You are saying in this case we should decide who the bishop is?” Houck asked. McGill replied that the complaint concerns whether Lawrence is making true statements that he is bishop.
But attorney Howell Bellamy, representing Lawrence, reminded the judge that he had already ruled the case should be heard in state court.
“They consented to an order in state court that resolved many of the issues that they continue to contest,” he said.
Houck, noting the complexity of the issues, joked that he would have a ruling “in two to three years.” Then he said he would issue an order in a week or so.