A judge ruled late Tuesday in favor of Bishop Mark Lawrence and a majority of area parishes that left The Episcopal Church in 2012, saying they had the right to leave and take more than $500 million in property with them.
Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein’s 46-page ruling comes six months after a nonjury trial last summer, during which more than 50 witnesses testified in the high-profile divorce between the national church and parishes that opted to separate from it.
Lawrence and his supporters then contended that he is the rightfully elected bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which has the freedom to associate — or not — with the national church as it chooses.
In her order, Goodstein agrees. She rules that Lawrence’s group has legal rights to the 38 parishes at issue as well as the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina’s name, seal and other identifying marks.
The lawsuit affects some of Charleston’s most historic colonial churches including St. Philip’s, St. Michael’s and Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church.
“The Constitution and Canons of (The Episcopal Church) have no provisions which state that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership,” Goodstein’s order says.
The Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary, applauded the ruling saying it “protects South Carolina churches from being added to the long list of properties that TEC seized, then either abandoned or sold off. The decision protects our freedom to embrace the faith Anglicans have practiced for hundreds of years — and not the new theology being imposed on TEC’s dwindling membership.”
A spokeswoman for local parishes that remain a part of The Episcopal Church declined to comment late Tuesday saying church leaders first needed time to analyze the lengthy ruling.
In court, The Episcopal Church’s attorneys have contended that it is a hierarchical institution whose governing body never gave the diocese permission to withdraw. However, Lawrence’s supporters countered that the diocese, formed in 1785, existed before the national church and could voluntarily leave as it chooses.
Goodstein ruled that Lawrence’s group took appropriate legal actions to disassociate from the national church, including a vote of its Standing Committee, and had the authority to do so.
She also noted the national church has no canons specifying that dioceses cannot leave without some form of permission.
In addition, Goodstein ruled, the Constitution provides a freedom of association that applies to the entities in this case. “With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” her order says.
In October 2012, the national church restricted Lawrence’s authority. He and about two-thirds of parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina, which spans the coastal half of the state, then withdrew from it after years of arguments over scriptural interpretations and church powers.
Soon after, they filed the lawsuit against The Episcopal Church to retain the diocese’s property, name and other assets.
Goodstein had issued a temporary restraining order allowing Lawrence’s group to continue using the Diocese of South Carolina’s property and identity, an order made permanent Tuesday.
Local parishes that remain with the national church have been calling themselves The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and are led by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg. Their spokeswoman, Holly Behre, said she could not yet comment whether vonRosenberg or the national church will appeal.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.