South Carolina Episcopalians
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August 20, 2017
Breakaway Diocese in Chaos 
Aborted attempt at spin control mirrors deeper confusion over future direction

Mark Lawrence's breakaway "Diocese of South Carolina" has been in a circle-the-wagons mode since early this month when the state's Supreme Court resoundingly rejected the premise of his nearly five-year-old lawsuit against the Episcopal Church.  Lawrence himself admitted that he was stunned when he learned that only seven of 36 parishes that joined him in the lawsuit could leave the Church with full title to their property.  

When the ruling came down, Lawrence's lawyers announced almost immediately that they would petition the five justices for a re-hearing.  However, that was clearly more of a knee-jerk response to encourage the faithful than evidence of a coherent legal strategy for moving forward.  

The lawyers had no idea how they would proceed.  They had been so confident of winning that they had not even considered potential next steps if they lost. Even Lawrence was defensive and uncharacteristically defeatist in his response.  Some close to him say that he is worried that his actions in creating the lawsuit may have also created legal liabilities for himself.

Support for extended legal adventures appears to be waning

Support for further legal appeals among pro-Lawrence parishes is not as unanimous as it once seemed, as far as SC Episcopalians can tell.   

We know some Lawrence clergy are telling their parish leaders that they are skeptical of the various strategies being floated by Lawrencian lawyers, and feel the time will be right for settlement talks with the Church once the rehearing request is laid to rest.  They dismiss as unhelpful the harsh rhetoric of hardline Lawrence clergy who've taken to their pulpits to assure parishioners that their full repatriation in the Episcopal Church is years away because the case will be tied up in appeals.  

Morale among Lawrence supporters appears to be the lowest it has ever been, and Lawrence's leadership team is increasingly under pressure to explain why breakaway parishes were not given the opportunity to vote on a 2015 settlement offer by which the Church would have relinquished any claims it had on parish properties, and allowed them to leave the Church.

"Looks like we are worse off than before Lawrence," said one layperson in a pro-Lawrence parish in an email to SC Episcopalians.

Even if money and support is there to mush forward, an appeal in this case will be very difficult, given the legal corner into which Lawrence's attorneys have painted themselves.

Appeals are tricky and could backfire

A successful appeal to the United States Supreme Court would require Lawrence's  lawyers to argue that the case raises significant Constitutional issues, which is exactly the opposite of what they have been saying since January 2013 when they filed their lawsuit against the Church.  They have been arguing that the lawsuit is simply a property dispute that can be adjudicated solely by state courts.

Even more discouraging is that the opinions of the two justices that did side with Lawrence are those most likely to be considered by Federal courts as outliers and in error.  

On the other hand, the majority opinion, written by former Chief Justice Costa Pleicones, is more in the legal mainstream and based on existing Federal case law.  It follow the logic of similar cases in other states that have been resolved.  He cited many settled cases that would have to be overturned for a higher court to find in Lawrence's favor.

There is also the question of what an appeal might mean for the seven Lawrence parishes in which the Supreme Court said the Church did not have an interest.  An appeal would risk an outcome that could overrule that part of the decision and deny them and any other similarly situated parishes the chance to leave the Church.

Once ridiculed Federal lawsuit could bring breakaway movement to an end

However, a rehearing or an appeal to the nation's high court is nothing in comparison to an upcoming challenge in Federal Court, which could well deal a death blow to what is left of the breakaway movement in South Carolina, and maybe even the country.  

The case is a lawsuit brought by former South Carolina Bishop Charles vonRosenberg against Lawrence, demanding that he be barred from pretending that he is a bishop in the Episcopal Church.   The case comes under the heading of false advertising, but goes to the legitimacy of Lawrence's claim that he is the leader of the "Diocese of South Carolina" even though he is not recognized as such by the Church and has said repeatedly that he is not an Episcopalian.

Lawyers for the Episcopal Church were not involved in bringing the Federal case, but now could be interested in asking the judge in the case to expand its scope to include larger issues that could even affect how breakaway lawsuits are handled in the future in other states.   

A majority on the state Supreme Court said they would have ruled that the "Diocese of South Carolina" belongs to the Episcopal Church, but left the matter to the Federal Court.

For more than four years, the late U.S. District Judge Weston Houck refused to let vonRosenberg's lawsuit (now Adams') go forward until Lawrence's lawsuit had run its course in the state courts.  Houck took the side of Lawrence's attorneys that the two cases were so similar that it would make sense for one to be decided first as it would very likely influence the outcome of the other.  

Lawrence's attorneys cheered Houck's position at the time, without realizing the potential negative consequence for Lawrence should the state case go south on them.  It was in hearings about this case that breakaway attorneys ridiculed Bishop vonRosenberg by consistently mangling the pronunciation of his name and, at one point, referring to him as "the German bishop."

Attempt to explain case points to confusion within Lawrence team

This morning someone on Lawrence's staff made an awkward attempt to put recent events into perspective for his followers by publishing - and then deleting - a "Frequently Asked Questions" page on its official website.  Most of the piece was a rehashing of five years of anti-Church propaganda.

However, it also it included admissions that seem to undermine critical arguments Lawrence's lawyers will need for their case for rehearing as well as defending Lawrence in Federal Court. 

One of the most significant of these was that the breakaways' motivation for filing the massive lawsuit against the Church was doctrinal and theological differences.  

This point may seem obscure to most of us, but it is hugely important to judges.   

If a dispute involving a Church like the Episcopal Church involves doctrine and interpretation of Scripture, the United States Constitution requires state court judges to defer to the Church's governing authority in making its ruling.  Lawrence has argued that the matter is simply a property dispute that should be decided by the state's property laws.

However, the 3-2 majority in the state's Supreme Court rejected Lawrence's claim and decided that this his beef with the Church is, in fact, a theological dispute masquerading as a property case, and that the position of the Church was relevant in determining the outcome of the case.  

In its FAQs today, under the heading of "why did we disassociate from the Episcopal Church?," the breakaway website cited its "theology, morality, and polity increasingly at odds with the rapidly changing and unprecedented positions" of the Episcopal Church.

The site went on to bitterly attack the theology of the then-Presiding Bishop and her predecessor, while providing a link to an article by Lawrence' lieutenant Jim Lewis that says, "Members of the diocese who voted to leave TEC feel the denomination has moved away from the authority of Scripture and their historic Anglican beliefs."

All of these admissions affirm the opinion of the Court majority that the case was always about doctrine and Scripture.  

The new FAQs page vanished from the breakaway website after only a few hours.

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