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St. Michael's Church in downtown Charleston, seen recently during Spoleto Festival, is among the disputed properties in the lawsuit between The Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina, which left the church in 2012. File/Wade Spees/Staff

For years, top legal minds have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to settle property fights between big national churches and breakaway congregations.

For years, they have been turned away before ever reaching the court's marble steps.

Whether a South Carolina case becomes the one that finally lands in the high court is a question that soon will be answered. The case could make history and carry implications for disputes that have divided other religious denominations throughout the country.

If a state court ruling stands, The Episcopal Church would reclaim $500 million worth of property occupied by South Carolina parishes that split from the national body.

But in a private meeting June 7, nine justices are set to consider whether the parishes from the Grand Strand to the Lowcountry should have another chance to make their case. A review would require a "yes" vote from four of them. An announcement might come as early as June 11, though the justices could delay it.

It would be the first legal dispute from the Palmetto State to fall under the court’s review since 2013, when a landmark decision allowed a James Island couple’s adoption of a Native American toddler known as Baby Veronica.

The court has rejected at least eight other Episcopal Church cases over the years, but different denominations have seen similar battles. On the same day it considers the South Carolina dispute, it also will discuss one involving a Presbyterian congregation in Eden Prairie, Minn., though that case has garnered less attention.

With so much at stake in the Palmetto State — the control of a large diocese — some experts think the issue will at last wind up in Washington.

"I think now is the time," said Dan Dalton, a Detroit attorney specializing in religious law who has represented smaller churches. "My sense is that this is the one that finally gives us some clarity."

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Old St. Andrew's Parish Church Tea Room (copy)

Old St. Andrew's Parish Church in West Ashley is embroiled in the Episcopal-Anglican fight.

'An easy case'?

While many agree that legal dilemmas over church governance are widespread across the country and need solving, not everyone thinks this is the right case.

Thirty-six parish properties split from the national church in 2012 over various differences, including theological divides. The Diocese of South Carolina, the breakaway group led by Bishop Mark Lawrence, wanted to keep the buildings and the land where its congregants worshipped.

But the church said it retains ownership under a canon that local parishes had agreed to decades earlier.

The diocese sued the church, hoping to hold onto the historic worship houses. It prevailed at trial. But the S.C. Supreme Court sided with the larger church, which would take control of 29 properties. Seven parishes whose leaders had not agreed to the property canon in writing were not affected by the ruling.

The diocese petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court, which accepts only about 100 of the 7,000 requests that it sees in an average year.

In a 50-page filing, the breakaway parishes argued that the South Carolina court had given deference to the national church's own rules, running afoul of First Amendment religious freedoms. The parishes said the long-running battle’s resolution should instead hinge on "neutral principles of law" — the strict provisions of state property law that do not favor a particular group.

Big churches could still retain ownership if their agreements with local parishes met the law's requirements for setting up land trusts. The diocese, though, said the canon wasn't a binding contract under the state property law.

"The South Carolina court unquestionably did not take this 'neutral' approach," the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary in the breakaway diocese, said in a letter to petitioners. Lewis declined to answer further questions about the upcoming legal milestone. 

The national church contended that the South Carolina justices had already based their decision on state law, avoiding First Amendment implications. The U.S. Supreme Court, the church added, should reject the case because it would have no constitutional issue to examine.

University of South Carolina law professor Greg Adams, himself an Episcopalian who has given legal opinions to both sides of the dispute, said the breakaway diocese never raised its argument in state court, making it too late to do so now.

“This may very well be an easy case that’s decided in less than a minute,” he said. “The (breakaway) group raises entirely new questions in an attempt to create the appearance of a constitutional issue.”

Much of the diocese’s argument, though, stressed the importance of the issue nationally and the "deep" disagreement among 19 courts that have ruled on it. Most of those disparate decisions turned on interpretations of a 1979 Supreme Court ruling, titled Jones v. Wolf, that established the neutral principle standard.

Like Adams, though, Chancellor Thomas Tisdale of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina said the state court had properly followed that ruling.

"The law is clear enough," he said.

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St. Philip's Church

St. Philip's Church

'Measure of anxiety'

If the court opts this month to take the case, the justices would hear oral arguments sometime during its next session in the fall. Because the June 30 end of its current term is nearing, the court could put off the decision, the Detroit lawyer Dalton said.

But Dalton said the court’s request for the church's response to the petition indicates that the justices may be interested. Such a response isn't normally required.

A group of top law professors also filed a brief supporting the diocese. Such a filing can make an impression on the justices' clerks, typically recent law school graduates who would know some of the professors, Dalton said. They often play key roles summarizing such cases for the judges' review.

"All of this is a sign that the court may take action," Dalton said.

Regardless of any development this month, it will likely be several more months before anything is resolved. If the South Carolina ruling stands, the opposing sides still must iron out who exactly takes responsibility for the church buildings; services there could be sparsely attended if the breakaway congregations are forced out.

Bishop Skip Adams of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina said recently in a letter that he hopes members of the opposing groups can worship together again. But not knowing the next step or when it will come remains a hurdle to moving on.

“Uncertainty,” he said in the letter, “always brings a measure of anxiety.”

Both he and Lewis, the breakaway diocese official, asked in separate letters for people to pray for God's will to be done.

Reach Andrew Knapp at 843-937-5414. Follow him on Twitter @offlede.

Andrew Knapp is editor of the Quick Response Team, which covers crime, courts and breaking news. He previously worked as a reporter and copy editor at Florida Today, Newsday and Bangor (Maine) Daily News. He enjoys golf, weather and fatherhood.