CHARLESTON, S.C. - A state lawsuit to settle issues in the Episcopal schism in eastern South Carolina, including ownership of a half billion dollars in church property, may be delayed because of an appeal to the state Court of Appeals.
Parishes in the conservative Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina separated from the more liberal national church almost two years ago amid differences over a variety of theological issues, including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays.
The churches that left sued in state court to protect the use of the diocesan name and ownership of the property of the parishes. The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard by Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein next month in Dorchester County.
Last month the judge again denied a motion by attorneys for the diocese remaining with the national church - a diocese that now calls itself The Episcopal Church in South Carolina - to add four people, including Bishop Mark Lawrence, to the case.
Lawrence heads the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and the motion argued that he and three other diocesan officials acted outside their legal authority when they withdrew the diocese.
But Goodstein ruled, and reaffirmed this month in an order denying reconsideration of her ruling, that adding the parties to the lawsuit with new counterclaims "would unduly complicate this matter, especially at this state of the litigation." The judge noted that the request to add the parties had already been denied by the court three other times.
Her ruling was appealed this week to the South Carolina Court of Appeals, putting the trial, for now, on hold.
"We are disappointed that The Episcopal Church filed another appeal, but not surprised," said a statement from Jan Pringle, a spokeswoman for The Diocese of South Carolina. "This is the 4th time they have attempted to unnecessarily add additional parties."
She said the diocese has filed a court response and hopes that the trial will not be delayed. She noted two of the people named in the motion no longer have leadership roles in the diocese.
Last year, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck denied motions to move the case to federal court. He ruled hearing it in federal court would disrupt the balance between state and federal courts.