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US Supreme Court declines review of Episcopal property dispute from South Carolina

St. Michael's Church court ruling

St. Michael's Church in downtown Charleston is seen Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review a ruling in a property dispute that gives ownership of the building to The Episcopal Church. Andrew Knapp/Staff

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to review the property dispute between The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and a breakaway group, marking a closing chapter of a more than five-year legal battle.

A year after the Diocese of South Carolina split from the national church in 2012 over theological divides and other differences, its parishes sued for control of 36 properties from the Grand Strand to the Lowcountry valued at $500 million.

Bishop Mark Lawrence's breakaway diocese prevailed during a Dorchester County trial but South Carolina's high court ruled last year in the larger church's favor, giving the national body ownership of 29 sites that were declared to have agreed to an internal property rule.

The diocese appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, contending the South Carolina decision ran afoul of First Amendment religious protections rather than hinging on neutral property laws.

The justices' order Monday denied the petition, leaving in place the state ruling and clearing the way for the national church to retake the properties. None of the buildings immediately changed hands; a local judge still must determine exactly how the ruling is carried out, possibly setting up another legal skirmish.

Without the high court weighing in, the law on similar church property fights remains muddy, the breakaway group said. The diocese had asked for a review because state courts nationwide have interpreted an earlier Supreme Court opinion so differently.

"We are disappointed the court chose not to resolve a serious division in the lower courts, though our case was a providential opportunity to do so," the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary in the diocese, said in a statement. "The essential issue ... will remain unresolved for now."

The church, though, had argued that the law already was clear enough.

"We are grateful for the clarity that this decision offers and hopeful that it brings all of us closer to having real conversations on how we can bring healing and reconciliation," Bishop Skip Adams of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina said in a statement. "Our path continues to be one of reconciliation and love."

While some experts thought the court would take a case that poses the sort of church governance issues dividing congregations nationwide, Monday's rejection was not a surprise to other lawyers and court observers. The justices typically take only 100 of the 7,000 cases they are asked to consider every year.

The high court had refused to examine at least eight other Episcopal Church cases before the South Carolina one came along. Lawsuits involving similar disputes among other denominations have also been turned away, including one Monday between Presbyterian groups in Minnesota.

With breakaway parishioners still worshipping in the same buildings they have called their church homes for decades, questions about the practical effect of the courtroom decisions still must be answered. The properties include historic buildings such as St. Michael's Church in downtown Charleston.

Susan Kemmerlin of West Ashley, a St. Michael's member since 2010, said she and others were shaken by the announcement. Many families have worshiped at the church for generations, she said. But if she has to move to stay true to her own biblical beliefs, Kemmerlin said she would.

"It hurts to the core. It's reality now," she said. "But God does everything for a reason. We have to trust in that."

A separate lawsuit awaiting trial in Charleston federal court also pits Lawrence and Charles vonRosenberg, who was bishop of the diocese that remained affiliated with the national church at the time of the split. Among the disputed issues is the names that the opposing groups should be allowed to use.

Even with Monday's development in the property dispute, officials from both sides said it could take months for lingering issues to be ironed out.

A judge in the Dorchester County civil court that hosted the original trial will take on that task. The church last month asked the judge to put the properties under its ownership and to appoint an attorney to oversee the transition, said Chancellor Thomas Tisdale of the local Episcopal-affiliated diocese.

That transition might not be easy.

The breakaway diocese contended the conflicted nature of the state Supreme Court ruling "is virtually unenforceable."

"There are many unresolved legal questions," Lawrence added.

Local Episcopal Church officials will discuss their plans for the coming months during a meeting Tuesday, they said. Adams, their bishop, also sought discussions with any parishioners "who want to remain in their home churches as Episcopalians."

Some members of the breakaway group, which became affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America last year, are bound to do that. But Kemmerlin said parishioners like herself would not, likely causing another rift.

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

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