Church, diocese steer amid legal murk

Bishop Mark Lawrence, left, confers with Alan Runyan, lead attorney in a case decided last week by Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein. She ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina and its parishes, led by Lawrence, had legal right to leave The Episcopal Church and take church properties with them.

In a pastoral letter sent out Friday, Bishop Mark Lawrence described his joy at last week’s court ruling that left his parishes clear victors over The Episcopal Church. But he also urged the flock to pray, be grateful — and read the 46-page ruling for themselves.

Because after so much legal wrangling, many still wonder: What does it all mean?

For one, the Diocese of South Carolina clearly can operate on its own with Lawrence, who led its departure from the national church, at the helm. Second, his diocese can keep the name and symbols, along with the parishes that left with it and the more than $500 million in church properties they inhabit, including historic colonial buildings.

“It is a judicial finding that we are who we say we are — the Diocese of South Carolina — and our names and symbols are ours alone to use,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, its canon to the ordinary.

Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein’s long-awaited ruling last week also could play a key role in similar disputes nationwide and impact other hierarchical churches that face discord in South Carolina. It comes at a time of increasing legal complexity as judges across the country decide similar cases using two very different legal principles, experts said.

And that could push the South Carolina case to the U.S. Supreme Court’s doorstep. Or at least some hope it will.

“It’s just sort of chaos, which is why I think the Supreme Court should intervene,” said Ronald Caldwell, a retired history professor who studies The Episcopal Church, particularly in South Carolina. “It is costing so much money and so many hard feelings. It should stop and be somehow resolved.”

Goodstein ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina and its 38 parishes’ decision to leave The Episcopal Church was legal and handled properly. The national church’s continuing local parishes quickly announced they would appeal.

“This is a long process and a long way from over,” said Holly Behre, spokeswoman for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

When a parish or diocese tries to leave a hierarchical church, legal knots become tied up in such weighty constitutional matters as separation of church and state and the freedom to associate, along with the secular nuances of state corporate and property laws.

Somewhere in that tangle is God, or at least the human faithful with passion enough to spend millions on legal fees and drive stakes of discord between fellow worshipers.

“This is huge,” said Alfred Pinckney, whose family has worshipped at St. Philip’s Church since the 1760s. If the national church prevails, he wondered, will he have to leave the church where his ancestors’ names dot the graveyard and are inscribed in the sanctuary?

Months, even years, worth of appeals will tell.

Legal roads through these schisms have been made more complex by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling 30 years ago that gave judges different principles they can apply.

“It’s up to each state to pick its path,” said Alan Runyan, lead attorney for the Diocese of South Carolina, which spans the eastern half of the state.

For more than a century, courts had resolved similar disputes by deferring to congregations in certain types of churches, such as more independent Baptists, or to the highest church judicial bodies in other more strictly hierarchical ones, such as Roman Catholic.

Then, several decades ago, the high court changed that. The justices ruled that judges also could examine state corporate and property laws regarding deeds and trusts, along with church documents, making sure they only considered them “in purely secular terms.” This has been dubbed “neutral principles.”

Judges took different paths, applying both principles at times differently.

Then The Episcopal Church fractured. As parishes and entire dioceses opted to leave, the lawsuits followed.

With Goodstein’s ruling, South Carolina lands strongly in the neutral principles camp already supported by the state Supreme Court. And it’s left hierarchical churches wondering how to protect their property.

“The foundational issue at stake really is separation of church and state. That has to be considered at all times. We cannot allow civic institutions to infringe on religion,” said Caldwell, who now is researching a book about the Diocese of South Carolina.

That’s where The Episcopal Church got into trouble in South Carolina, Runyan said.

“If they want to preserve property, they’ve got to follow the right process within each state and establish consensual agreements,” Runyan said.

He also wasn’t so sure the U.S. Supreme Court will revisit the question. “The tea leaves are very difficult to read.”

South Carolinians have company. Five dioceses across the nation have tried to leave The Episcopal Church.

First was the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin in California where Lawrence once served as rector of a large parish. That diocese disaffiliated in 2007, four months after Lawrence was elected bishop of South Carolina for the second time.

The last of the five to leave? The Diocese of South Carolina.

Lawsuits resulted from them all. Here’s where the others stand:

Fort Worth, Texas: In this widely watched case, a lower court ruled in favor of the national church, deferring to its internal decisions. But the Texas Supreme Court overturned that, saying its lower courts had to apply neutral principles, which could favor the breakaway diocese.

On appeal, The Episcopal Church and its South Carolina parishes joined the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Methodist Church and others asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the Texas case as they too steer seas of discord.

“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 parties argued in a brief.

The high court declined.

Pittsburgh: This diocese’s case was settled in favor of The Episcopal Church. The breakaway group returned millions in church property.

San Joaquin: In a decision last May, a superior court judge ruled for the national church. Appeals are underway.

Quincy, Ill.: Last summer, an Illinois appellate court ruled in favor of the small Diocese of Quincy, which had left the national church.

Then came Goodstein’s ruling.

“This is a very important case,” Caldwell said. “South Carolina is the most important of the five breakaway dioceses, and it’s the one everyone is watching.”

For instance, Goodstein described The Episcopal Church much like a congregational church, as Baptist churches operate, for instance. “Authority flows from the bottom, the parish churches, up,” her order says.

That is in sharp contrast to the hierarchical description The Episcopal Church uses to contend its dioceses simply cannot pick up and leave without permission, much less take church property with them.

“Her ruling is very controversial,” Caldwell said.

As the case moves forward, prayers will be said across South Carolina today as worshippers on both sides ask God to lead them to victory.

Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, who leads local parishes that remain with The Episcopal Church, noted that Christian history is rife with stories of delayed justice.

“Such is the situation we now must endure for a while, as we continue on this journey,” he said.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.