ST. GEORGE - A lawsuit over rights to more than $500 million in church property and identifying marks of the Diocese of South Carolina marched through an eighth day of testimony Thursday with experts debating the nuances of trademark law.
Bishops on both sides of the schism joked about the tedious nature of the civil court proceedings over issues surrounding trademarks, property rights and state corporate law.
Bishop Mark Lawrence and most parishes in the formally called Protestant Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which spans the coastal half of the state, left The Episcopal Church in 2012 after years of dissension over theology and administrative powers. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. province of the global Anglican Communion.
The diocese and those parishes then filed a lawsuit in January 2013 against the national Episcopal Church to retain control of diocesan property, names and seal. Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein issued a restraining order that has since allowed Lawrence's group to continue using them.
Goodstein has been presiding over the non-jury trial since it began July 8. It appears likely to last more than the two weeks scheduled.
Florida attorney Leslie Lott, who works with trademark law, testified that The Episcopal Church's registered name could be infringed upon by other unrelated entities if the use confuses the public. That is true even if a diocese or parishes individually used names such as "episcopal" long before the national church registered it.
"If it is used in such a way as to create confusion by the public, it is definitely trademark infringement," Lott said. Using it long ago wouldn't be as relevant, because the issue is "what is happening today."
In 1789, the diocese was one of nine that founded The Episcopal Church. Lawrence's group contends, the diocese is as it was before joining: an independent entity. Therefore, it is seeking to retain rights to the names and mark of all versions of the name Protestant Episcopal Church of South Carolina.
Lawrence's group just wrapped up nearly a week of calling parish leaders to describe their governance structures and other issues aimed at showing their historic and current independence from the national church.
Local parishes and missions that remain with the national church, temporarily calling themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, argue that national church is a hierarchical institution that controls its property. A diocese, they contend, is a subordinate unit of the church and cannot leave with property and the diocesan name. That group is now led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg.
Eleanor Koets, who served on the vestry of St. Paul's in Summerville before the split occurred, said that after the church's clergy decided to disaffiliate from the national church, she and others who remained loyal to it were not allowed to use church property to continue worshiping there on their own with different clergy.
"Even though it's like a death you know is coming, it was stunning," Koets said. She now worships at an Episcopal mission meeting in a Methodist church building.
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