ST. GEORGE - The judge presiding over the local Episcopal schism trial said Wednesday that she considers the case a matter of neutral, secular state laws and not about a hierarchical church's authority, a potential blow to The Episcopal Church's argument that it has the religious freedom to govern its own dioceses.
"I'm not going into the hierarchical part," Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein said.
At issue is whether state civil laws override a national, hierarchical church body's authority on matters of governance such as whether a subunit can secede or whether to hold property in trust.
"To what extent am I going to delve into ecclesiastical law?" Goodstein asked. "I'm not."
David Beers, chancellor to The Episcopal Church's presiding bishop, disagreed: "We contend hierarchy is important."
Along the same lines, local Episcopalians joined the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a similar Texas case. They are seeking to clarify about which takes precedence given similar cases around the country have yielded different rulings.
Locally, Goodstein is presiding over the third week of a non-jury trial stemming from a lawsuit the Diocese of South Carolina filed against The Episcopal Church seeking to retain property and identifying names and marks. She will issue a final ruling later.
Bishop Mark Lawrence and about two-thirds of parishes in the diocese, which spans the coastal half of the state, left the national church in 2012 after years of disputes over theology and administrative control.
They filed a lawsuit in 2013 that affects more than $500 million in physical property including some of the nation's most historic and renowned church buildings: St. Michael's and St. Philip's in the heart of downtown Charleston, Christ Church in Mount Pleasant and Old St. Andrew's Parish in West Ashley. Also at stake is the beloved St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center.
Goodstein noted that The Episcopal Church's constitution or canons don't appear to say a diocese cannot leave.
"Nothing written says you are here forever," Goodstein said. "It seems to me it ought to be written, but it isn't."
Episcopal Church attorneys contend it is implied by other powers held by its top governing body, the General Convention, that a diocese would need permission to leave.
Goodstein issued a temporary restraining order last year allowing Lawrence's group to use the Diocese of South Carolina's property and identity. The diocese that remains part of the national church is temporarily calling itself The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.
Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, who leads the local Episcopalians, closed the trial's first round of testimony Wednesday describing ties between local dioceses and the national church.
"We are the designated diocese by The Episcopal Church in this area," vonRosenberg said.
He described confusion caused by the split such as members sending checks to the wrong diocese and people getting confirmed by the wrong bishop.
"Those people came to me and asked to be confirmed in The Episcopal Church," vonRosenberg testified.
Meanwhile, vonRosenberg's group filed a so-called amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday asking the high court to hear a similar Texas case to clarify which takes precedence - secular state law or a hierarchical church's own law.
Amicus briefs are filed by those who aren't parties to an appeal but have a strong interest in the outcome.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina filed the brief to support the national church in a case against the Episcopal Diocese of Fort Worth, one of several lawsuits around the country where, as in South Carolina, a diocese withdrew from the national church and sought to retain property and other elements.
The entire Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Methodist Church, other hierarchical churches, also joined the brief. They argue it's a matter of religious freedom.
"Only this court can ensure that the First Amendment rights of hierarchical churches and their adherents do not vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and that hierarchical churches are governed by uniform First Amendment standards," the brief says.
Texas, like South Carolina, puts priority on "neutral principles of law," which means secular courts can use secular, neutral principles rather than religious ones to decide cases involving religious issues. They tend to focus on official documents, such as parish charters, and state laws to decide cases.
Lawrence's group contends they followed all state corporate laws when they opted to leave the national church.
"States are free to choose whether they try these kinds of cases according to principles of hierarchy or of neutral principles of law," said the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to Lawrence.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.