Episcopal lawsuit to be heard by state’s high court

The S.C. Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of a massive lawsuit over the local Episcopal schism involving some of Charleston’s most historic colonial parishes.

The S.C. Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to hear a lawsuit over a local Episcopal Church schism involving more than $500 million in church properties, bypassing the state appellate court in the complex case.

The justices set a Sept. 23 date to hear oral arguments.

“We are pleased that the court has agreed to hear the case, and we look forward to presenting our positions on these important issues before the Supreme Court,” said Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which comprises about 30 parishes that remain with the national church after the split.

Last month, The Episcopal Church and its local parishes appealed Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein’s order granting parishes that left the national church rights to the Diocese of South Carolina name, seal and their church properties. They filed a notice of appeal with the state Court of Appeals in Columbia but also asked the S.C. Supreme Court to take up the case to save time and church money.

The case already has cost millions in legal fees, and its transcript spans 2,523 pages including the testimony of 59 witnesses and 1,200 exhibits.

The more quickly the case is resolved, the sooner all parties can get back to ministry without incessant legal distractions, said the Rev. Jim Lewis, the Diocese of South Carolina’s cannon to the ordinary.

“We’re delighted that the S.C. Supreme Court is taking the appeal now and that it won’t have to go through the state court of appeals before it could be heard by the state’s highest court,” Lewis said in a statement. “Our aim all along has been to protect the diocese, its identity and properties from The Episcopal Church, which has sued more than 80 other churches and dioceses that sought to leave. We’re grateful that the South Carolina judicial system has expeditiously moved this case forward.”

The protracted legal journey began when about two-thirds of parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina and Bishop Mark Lawrence left the national church in 2012 after years of bitter arguments over everything from gay clergy and same-sex marriage to the nature of salvation and the hierarchical powers of the national church.

Lawrence’s followers then sued The Episcopal Church and its local parishes to keep the diocesan name, marks and individual parish properties.

After a three-week non-jury trial in summer 2014, Goodstein ruled strongly in favor of the breakaway parishes, saying they had the right to leave and take the Diocese of South Carolina name and their church properties with them. They include some of Lowcountry’s most historic colonial churches, such as St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s in Charleston and Old St. Andrew’s Parish in West Ashley, as well as the beloved St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center.

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