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     Post & Courier Op-Ed
From the Charleston Post & Courier:

November 17, 2017
Loyal Episcopalians Short-Changed

Imagine years ago you rented your house to your brother.  You even signed a lease to which you have both faithfully adhered. 

Then comes a shock.  

One day you discover your brother has changed his name to yours and filed a lawsuit, claiming to be the owner of the house.  Even worse, he has found a judge who says you were never its rightful owner and have no claim to it. 

This is the situation in which 7,000 Episcopalians in eastern South Carolina found themselves five years ago when their now ex-bishop, Mark Lawrence, and 36 congregations aligned with him abruptly announced they were leaving the Episcopal Church.  

On the way out, they filed a massive lawsuit claiming ownership of $500 million in Church properties and financial assets accumulated over three centuries by loyal Church members.  They also claimed ownership of the Church’s local corporate entity, “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.“ 

In 2015 Dorchester County Judge Diane Goodstein took the side of your brother and awarded the breakaway group everything it wanted.  She somehow determined her authority trumped that of the Church, and reassigned ownership of its properties and assets away from loyal members to those recently departed.  She bypassed the Church’s legitimate bishop in South Carolina, and handed his entire diocesan structure over to Lawrence, who was no longer even an Episcopalian. 

Fortunately, the state Supreme Court had more common sense.  Last August it took your side against your brother, overturned Goodstein, and affirmed that Church property belongs to the Church and its local “Episcopal Diocese” to local Church members.  

The ruling was based on over 200 years of Constitutional case law also used by high courts in 14 other states to reach this same conclusion in similar disputes. 

Goodstein grossly overstepped her authority.  If allowed to stand, her ruling would have constituted the single, most egregious breach of the Constitutional doctrine of separation of Church and State by a secular court ever. 

Lawrence and his supporters have responded to the loss by hiring a national public relations firm to supplement their 40-member legal team in arousing public animosity across the country against the Court and pressuring the justices for a second chance to get it right.  

They are arguing the Court decision will illegally force their clients to surrender ownership of long-held properties, and boot them from parish buildings in which their families have worshipped for generations.  They are also claiming Associate Justice Kay Hearn was biased against them and have launched a bitter campaign smearing her in the hopes of getting a rehearing without her participation  

Of course, this is all political posturing. 

First, the courts cannot take properties away from a group that never owned them in the first place.  

In the Episcopal Church, congregations are not sole owners of their properties.  They belong to the Church and local dioceses that in turn hold them in a kind of trust for the benefit of their congregations.  

In this case the Supreme Court correctly determined that the Church has an ownership interest in them, such they cannot be sold or transferred without the Church’s consent.  

Second, no one is being forced out of their buildings.  Skip Adams, the legitimate bishop of the continuing Episcopal Church in South Carolina, has said repeatedly these buildings will be used for worship just as they have in the past, as long as there is a congregation to support them. 

Finally, the breakaways’ problem with Justice Hearn is one of their own making.  Their lawyers did not object to her participation in the case until after it was decided by the high court and they knew how she would vote.  The time to have challenged her was before the case was heard.  

That Justice Hearn is an Episcopalian was not a compelling reason for her to have recused herself since the precedent this ruling would establish applies equally to all denominations represented by the justices.  

Breakaway attorneys unwittingly legitimized Hearn’s remaining on case when they argued the lawsuit had nothing to do with Church doctrine, theology, or religious freedom.  For five years, they have insisted that it was solely about issues of property ownership and corporate control.  

Consequently, their argument that Hearn’s religious affiliation is somehow relevant in a case they contend is not about religion makes no sense.  

One small victory for the breakaways was that the Court determined the Church lacked a property interest in seven of their parishes and they could depart with their property intact. 

Ironically, one of the seven was Hearn’s.  

Even sneaky brothers sometimes win. 

Steve Skardon is a lifelong lay member of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina and editor of 

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