St. Michael's Church

St. Michael's Church on Meeting and Broad streets in Charleston is among the disputed properties in the lawsuit between The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina, which left the church in 2012. Andrew Knapp/Staff

The state's highest court has opted not to rehear the contentious case pitting The Episcopal Church in South Carolina against the Diocese of South Carolina, putting an end to litigation at the state level.

The Diocese of South Carolina, which left The Episcopal Church in 2012, sued to retain ownership of physical and intellectual property. In August, the S.C. Supreme Court handed down a set of five distinct opinions that reversed a circuit court decision, returning most church property to The Episcopal Church.

Motions for rehearing and for the recusal of one of the justices, Kaye Hearn, an Episcopalian, were denied, according to a news release issued late Saturday by the diocese.

The denial for rehearing, like the opinions issued before them, was divided. Two justices, Costa Pleicones and Donald Beatty, were against rehearing the case while John Kittredge and Jean Toal were for it. Hearn did not participate in the decision. Since no majority was reached, the rehearing was denied.

None of the justices approved the motion for recusal, arguing that the request came too late in the process.

"An adverse decision is no reason to excuse a nearly two-and-a-half year delay in making a request for recusal," wrote Toal in her response. "While I make no criticism of the respondents' lawyers for filing the motions to recuse and for vacature, I am disappointed in the tone of these filings. They are unreasonable harsh criticisms of a highly accomplished judge and a person of great decency and integrity."

The Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, spokesman for the disassociated diocese, reiterated concerns expressed in the diocese's motions and expressed disappointment in the court's decision.

“We are deeply disappointed the Court did not see fit to recuse Justice Hearn," Lewis said in a statement. "Her personal interest in the outcome of this litigation, beyond the normal matters of law, has clearly influenced its outcome. That is unfortunate not only for the Diocese but for all the citizens of this State with concerns for a fair and impartial judiciary. We also find it disturbing that the weight of the Constitutional concerns raised was not given further opportunity to be addressed. Church property ownership in South Carolina is now gravely complicated."

Toal did state her concern over the lack of agreement among justices in the case.

"The Court’s collective opinion in this case gives rise to great uncertainty, in that we have given little to no coherent guidance in this case or in church property disputes going forward," she wrote. "Given our lack of agreement, I have no doubt the court will see more litigation involving these issues and similarly situated parties.”

The Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. Adams III, bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, expressed gratitude "for the clarity that the State Supreme Court’s decision provides" and "for the thoughtful and difficult work the justices have undertaken in this case," and he acknowledged the "pain, fear and confusion" felt by many.

"The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is committed to finding a path that will allow the people of God to continue to live their lives as a part of the Anglican Communion in and through the Episcopal Church," Adams said. "Our prayer is that every person in every parish of the Diocese will join in working and praying together to bring healing to the Church, the Body of Christ, in this part of South Carolina."

Lewis said the disassociated diocese was now giving "serious consideration" to petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Because of the long road of litigation that has brought us to this day, all the parties to this case will need to take counsel together before deciding our next steps," he said.

If no legal action is taken, the case will end. Twenty-eight church properties currently controlled by the diocese will revert to The Episcopal Church. The two sides are in the midst of a mediation process that could result in a mutually determined arrangement.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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