Judge’s decision sets up next step in Episcopal Church’s legal battle

A circuit judge refused late Monday to reconsider her ruling in favor of the Diocese of South Carolina, which includes the historic Colonial parish, St. Philip’s Church. (Wade Spees/postandcourier.com)

A circuit judge refused to reconsider her ruling against The Episcopal Church and its local parishes in a move late Monday evening that opens the legal doors to an appeal.

Two weeks ago, The Episcopal Church and its local diocese asked Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein to reverse her order allowing parishes that left the national church in 2012 to keep the Diocese of South Carolina’s name, symbols and more than $500 million in property. That includes some of Charleston’s most historic Colonial church buildings, graveyards and other properties.

The 180-page motion to reconsider took numerous legal issues with 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.

In her two-page denial, Goodstein ruled that the motion “raised no novel issues for the Court’s consideration.”

She added, “Large portions of the motion are simply the proposed orders previously submitted to the Court or reiterations of the Defendants’ positions at trial.”

The motion had to be filed before an appeal can move forward. The national church and its local diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, have said they plan to do so.

It means continuing a legal battle that’s now well into its third year. The Diocese of South Carolina already has spent $2 million so far on legal costs, Bishop Mark Lawrence said. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina hasn’t released its spending.

“Their policy of using legal action to drain the finances of dissident congregations is not working. It only deflects denomination resources from projects to promote the faith and speeds the downward spiral of the Episcopal Church,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of South Carolina.

However, at a meeting with Goodstein in July 2013, early in the case, Episcopal Diocese in South Carolina Chancellor Tom Tisdale called potential mediation “a positive possibility” after the Diocese of South Carolina’s attorney said she didn’t think it would serve a useful purpose and would waste resources in the action, a transcript shows.

After a three-week nonjury trial in summer 2014, Goodstein ruled strongly in favor of area parishes that left The Episcopal Church along with Lawrence, saying they had the right to leave and take their church properties with them. About two-thirds of area parishes and the bishop disaffiliated after protracted theological and administrative disputes, and have since used 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.

A spokeswoman for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina declined to comment immediately after Goodstein’s latest ruling was filed late Monday.

Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563.