Episcopal Church asks judge to reverse recent ruling, challenges key points

The Episcopal Church and its local diocese, led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg (in green), filed a motion Friday asking Judge Diane Goodstein to reverse her ruling in favor of parishes that left the national church in 2012. Wade Spees/Staff

The Episcopal Church and its local parishes filed a motion Friday asking a circuit judge to reverse her order allowing parishes that left the national church in 2012 to keep the Diocese of South Carolina’s name and more than $500 million in physical properties.

The 180-page motion takes numerous legal hits at Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein’s Feb. 3 ruling, challenging her findings and conclusions and arguing her ruling makes incorrect statements, fails to consider relevant points of law and doesn’t fully address evidence. The motion must be filed before an appeal can move forward.

After a three-week non-jury trial, Goodstein ruled strongly in favor of area parishes that left The Episcopal Church along with Bishop Mark Lawrence, saying they had the right to leave and take their church properties with them.

Lawrence and those parishes contend the Diocese of South Carolina predates The Episcopal Church and has the freedom to associate — or not — with the national church as it chooses. About two-thirds of area parishes and the bishop disafilliated after protracted theological and administrative disputes and have since retained the Diocese of South Carolina name.

However, The Episcopal Church contends it is a hierarchical body and that a diocese cannot simply leave without consent.

In the motion, its attorneys argue the judge’s order fails to address how the First Amendment affects South Carolina religious organizations and “whether they have the right to withdraw from larger hierarchical organizations of which they are a part.”

Meanwhile, the Diocese of South Carolina called the motion “disappointing” because it will require spending more church money and time on legal wrangling.

“This continued use of litigation to delay the process and bully dissidents who disagree with (The Episcopal Church’s) abandonment of historical Anglican theology further shows the denomination is desperate to stop the decline in its membership — even if it must threaten members to prevent their departure,” said The Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of South Carolina.

Parishes that remain with the national church, now called The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, include 30 congregations in eastern South Carolina led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg. The Episcopal Church is the U.S. province of the Anglican Communion.

Among other things, The Episcopal Church’s motion argues that Goodstein’s order does not address a key constitutional principle at stake, the freedom of a hierarchical church to govern its own affairs.

“This dispute is overwhelmingly entangled with ecclesiastical determinations, such as the meaning of (The Episcopal Church’s) canonical rules, the identity of its dioceses, and the authority of its dioceses’ leaders. Such determinations require deference to TEC, a hierarchical religious organization of which all of the other parties in this case are a part,” the motion says.

However, the Diocese of South Carolina has long argued the case should be decided under state corporate law, and the judge agreed.

The motion to reconsider also challenges the breakaway group’s contention that the diocese predates the national church.

Goodstein now must respond to the motion.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563 or follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes.