Parishes had right to leave Episcopal Church, state Supreme Court filing contends

Parishes led by Bishop Mark Lawrence (left) have filed a brief before the state Supreme Court laying out legal arguments for why they can leave the national church and take their parish properties and the diocesan identity with them. The justices will hear arguments on Sept. 23.

Parishes that left The Episcopal Church in 2012 have filed written arguments with the state Supreme Court contending they have the right to depart and take their properties and the diocesan identity with them.

It marks the last major chance to sway the court in writing. The justices will hear arguments Sept. 23.

The protracted legal battle began when two-thirds of parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and Bishop Mark Lawrence left the national church in 2012 after years of dispute over doctrine and administrative powers.

In all, three dozen parishes sued the national church and its local diocese to retain control of their roughly $500 million in parish properties and the diocese’s name, marks and other identifiers. The lawsuit includes several of Charleston’s historic colonial churches as well as the beloved St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center.

In their 59-page brief, the parishes contend they have the right to associate as they choose and that the national church has nothing in its governance laws prohibiting a diocese from leaving.

“(The Episcopal Church) does not control dioceses,” the brief contends. “They are equal members of an unincorporated association. TEC consents to their admission, it does not create them. TEC has no power over the affairs of a Diocese.”

However, in their brief filed last month, The Episcopal Church’s attorneys countered it is a hierarchical church and an entire diocese cannot simply leave. The parishes at issue all chose to identify with the national body, which is the American province of the global Anglican Communion, because of advantages to being included in its brand.

Once those parishes wanted to leave, they sued to take the structures and assets built using the Episcopal Church’s brand with them, The Episcopal Church’s brief states.

In February, after a three-week trial, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the parishes had the right to leave and take their property and the diocesan identity with them. The Episcopal Church and its local diocese appealed.

Earlier this month, an attorney for The Episcopal Church’s remaining local parishes made a settlement offer that would allow the parishes to leave and take their properties with them in exchange for the diocesan identity and other properties, including St. Christopher.

Lawrence’s group rejected the offer and called it “illegitimate.”

Episcopal diocese’s officials said it was made in good faith with proper authority and remains on the table.

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