A Pawleys Island congregation, embroiled in litigation ever since it left the Episcopal Church in 2004, has won a major court battle over land and assets that could have wide implications for others looking to break away.

The S.C. Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that All Saints Church at Pawleys Island belonged to the independent corporation All Saints Parish, Waccamaw Inc. and not to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which had staked a claim to the property.

"When a vestry of a parish in the diocese votes to take action to leave the church, they cannot then hold an office as a vestry of the church from which they have voted to depart," wrote then-Bishop Edward L. Salmon Jr. soon after All Saints' vestry voted to break its ties with the Episcopal Church and modify its 1902 parish charter.

But last week, the state's highest court repudiated the diocese's claims, overturning an earlier Circuit Court verdict.

The court rejected the Episcopal Church's claim that "all real and personal property" used by a congregation, mission or parish "is held in trust for this church." That rule, codified in 1979 and called the Dennis Canon, makes it impermissible for congregations to assume ownership of church property. The Episcopal Church long has argued that when individuals choose to leave the church, dioceses and parishes remain intact and available to others who choose to remain, even if they constitute a minority of the congregation.

In its decision, the S.C. Supreme Court agreed that it could not resolve religious or doctrinal disputes but insisted that the All Saints case was corporate in nature.

"The 2005 case turns on a determination of whether the Articles of Amendment approved by the members of All Saints Waccamaw, Inc. on January 8, 2004, were adopted in compliance with the South Carolina Non-Profit Act," the court said. "We find that the Articles of Amendment were lawfully adopted and effectively severed the corporation's legal ties to the ECUSA and the Diocese. Therefore, we find that the members of the majority vestry are the true officers of All Saints Parish, Waccamaw, Inc."

Friday's ruling traced the history of the congregation's claim on the property, starting with a 1745 deed of trust and culminating in a 1903 quit-claim deed in which the diocese specifically made clear that the property belonged to the congregation.

The court rejected a claim that the minority who remained faithful to the denomination should keep the property. The congregation of more than 500 members voted overwhelmingly in 2004 to change its charter to delete all references to the Episcopal Church.

They transferred their allegiance to the Anglican Mission in America, which is under the oversight of Rwandan Anglican leaders. The majority who left the diocese and the national church considered developments such as the elevation of a gay bishop too liberal for their liking.

Church leaders were divided over how the ruling might apply to other Episcopal property battles around the nation.

The Rev. Kendall Harmon, canon theologian for the Diocese of South Carolina, declined to speculate when asked how the ruling might apply elsewhere. But he led his TitusOneNine blog Saturday with a quote from A.S. Haley, a California attorney, praising the court's rejection of the Dennis Canon.

"The opinion presents a clear and thoroughly common-sense refutation of ECUSA's outlandish claims: that as a hierarchical church, it has the power (1) to decide which congregation/vestry is the 'true' congregation/vestry in a given parish; and (2) to override State law by imposing a trust on all parish property everywhere in its Dioceses without its being the owner of any of that property," Haley wrote.

Bishop Chuck Murphy of All Saints started much of the controversy when he was consecrated as a missionary bishop of Rwanda in 2000. He wanted to separate from the Episcopal Church but maintain ties with the Anglican Communion, the international affiliation of Anglican churches. Murphy hailed the Supreme Court ruling as an important precedent for other dissenters.

"In addition to being a complete victory for all of us here at All Saints, Pawleys Island, it is a profoundly important legal decision repudiating the 'authority' of the Dennis Canon," Murphy said in a statement e-mailed from his Anglican Mission in America headquarters. "I believe that this will have enormous implications not only for the two Episcopal dioceses in South Carolina, but, I suspect, for other churches throughout the USA."

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553 or dmunday@postandcourier.com.