South Carolina Episcopalians
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August 2, 2017

Breakaways' Lawsuit Implodes

State's Supreme Court issues mixed opinion in Lawrence lawsuit, as lower court decision
is mostly shredded 

Seven breakaway parishes can leave The Episcopal Church, while 29 others must remain

Lower court's premise that Episcopal Church is not "hierarchical"  is rejected

Federal judge will likely determine ownership of the "Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina"
but a majority of the justices say it belongs to the Church; Camp St. Christopher
would go with the owner of the Diocese

COLUMBIA -- The Episcopal Church and its continuing Diocese in eastern South Carolina won a stunning victory today, as the state's Supreme Court ruled in its favor on a 2013 lawsuit filed by former bishop Mark Lawrence and breakaway parishes aligned with him.   In the lawsuit, Lawrence was asking the state's court to declare that he and his followers could leave the Church and legally take their property and financial assets with them.

In a vigorously engaged opinion, the Court narrowly overturned a 2015 lower court ruling that gave the Lawrence crowd control of parish properties and diocesan assets worth an estimated $500 million.   The lower court judge also gave them the corporate entity known as "The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" and its Camp St. Christopher on Seabrook Island, south of Charleston.

The Church and its continuing Diocese appealed the decision to the high court.

Today the Court determined that 29 of the 36 parishes that had joined Lawrence in his lawsuit were still part of the Episcopal Church, and not free to "disassociate" from the Church because the Church had a legal stake in their property.  That means they cannot sell or convert their property to another use without the consent of the Church.

The Court determined that there was no property interest evident with seven of the parishes aligned with Lawrence and they were free to leave the Church with their properties.  
Those parishes are St. John's in Florence, St. Paul's in Conway, St. Matthew's in Darlington, Prince George's in Georgetown, Christ the King in Pawleys Island, St. Matthias in Summerton, and St. Andrew's (and St. Andrew's Land Trust) in Mount Pleasant. 

The justices also said they would leave the decision of corporate ownership up to a Federal judge who is handling a related case in Charleston.  However, a majority of the justices said they would have awarded it to the Episcopal Church if it was up to them.

Justices bitterly divide over key issues in the case

The 77-page opinion came after nearly two years of wrangling among the five justices, each of whom wrote a separate opinion in which he or she variously concurred and dissented with each other's on key elements of the ruling.  

The All Saints' case, the Court's 2009 ruling in which similar issues were raised, enjoyed a significant cameo appearance in today's opinion with former Chief Justice Jean Toal staunchly defending one of her signature opinions from denigration by long-time rival and successor, former Chief Justice Costa Pleicones.   In that case the Court under her leadership voted that the Church did not have a legal interest in the parish property of All Saints' Episcopal Church on Pawleys Island because the congregation had never explicitly agreed to be governed by the Constitution and Canons of the Church.

Lawrence brought his lawsuit in 2013 claiming that the All Saints' decision was applicable to any parish that wanted to leave the Church, even though Toal and other justices on the case had told them that it wasn't.

When the Court held oral arguments on Lawrence's case in September 2015, Toal was furious that Lawrence's breakaways had structured their entire departure strategy on her opinion in All Saints'. 

All Saints' has nothing to do with this case, she told the attorneys for Lawrence.  

However, over the past seven years, Toal's All Saints' opinion has become something of an outlier among the states dealing with legal cases brought by breakaway groups.  At least two of her five colleagues today were ready to overturn it.

At one point in his opinion today, Pleicones needled her by blaming her opinion in that case for causing the lower court judge in the Lawrence matter to arrive at the wrong outcomes.  According to Pleicones, "the trial court sought to faithfully apply the flawed analytical framework created by All Saints'.  In doing so, she unwittingly violated the constitutional precepts that underlie the "neutral principles of law" approach to the resolution of church disputes."

"Neutral principles" is a legal framework states are allow to employ in matters involving denominations like the Episcopal Church. 
In essence, it allows state courts to ignore Federal Constitutional protections for hierarchical churches in cases in which doctrinal issues do not play a role. 

Incredibly, the lower court trial judge had ruled that Lawrence's case was not about doctrine even though Lawerence and his followers had spent five years saying that it was.  She the problem even worse by refusing to allow the Church to present evidence that the case was all about doctrine.

Pleicones' opinion reflects mainstream precedents in prior cases

Pleicones took the lead for the pro-Church side and was consistently supported by Associate Justice Kay Hearn at each major point in the multi-layered opinion.  The case was indeed about Church doctrine and, as such, the trial court judge should have deferred to the position of the Episcopal Church that claimed the Constitution supported its claim to an interest in the property of Lawrence's parishes. 

Hearn managed to get in a few shots at Toal's insistent defense of this part of her legacy saying,  "I must part company with Acting Justice Toal in her dogged efforts to impose civil law at any cost... and indeed, elevate(s) the concept of neutral principles to heights heretofore unknown."

Toal responded to the barbs by pointing out that there was still a majority that supported her position that neutral principles is still a valid option for future cases.  However, it was clear that a majority did not agree that the lower court judge in the Lawrence case was right to deny deference to the Church on the property issue.

Both Toal and Pleicones are retired but were on the Court at the time the Church and its continuing diocese in South Carolina appealed the lower court ruling. They remained on the case as acting justices, even though their successors had been elected.
s\ were elected and are now serving.  

Toal and Associate Justice John Kittredge from Greenville were solidly in the breakaways' corner, while current Chief Justice Don Beatty served as the self-described "swing vote"  between them and Pleicones and Hearn.

Owners of the "Diocese of South Carolina" to be decided by Federal Court

A majority on the Court said that it believed the corporate entity known as "The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" belonged to the Church, but deferred to a case pending in Federal Court before U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel in Charleston.  

Lawrence claims he is an Episcopal bishop because the lower court judge, Diane Goodstein,  awarded him its corporate "marks," indicating the Diocese and its properties and assets belonged to him.  

In 2013 the bishop of the Church's continuing Diocese, known as "The Episcopal Church in South Carolina," took issue with that and initiated a lawsuit in Federal court against his predecessor, claiming that Lawrence was engaged in "false advertising" that was interfering with his work and that of the real Episcopal diocese.

The case before Gergel will likely be heard in the spring, but given today's ruling, it may move forward more rapidly.  It is difficult to imagine that his decision would not be determined in a manner consistent with today's opinion from the state's high court.

Confusion, disappointment, and bravado

Not unexpectedly, t
here was deep disappointment today among the breakaway congregations that collectively had spent millions promoting Lawrence's lawsuit over the last nearly five years.  Over that time Lawrence had instilled in them a confidence that its was God's will that they would prevail in the high court, and his followers responded by providing financial support for a legal team that included between forty and fifty attorneys. 

Adding to their distraction is second-guessing on whether they should have rejected a 2015 settlement offer in which the Church actually offered to give up its claim to their properties in exchange for their giving up their claims to the "The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina".  

The Rt. Rev. Skip Adams, Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, sounded a grateful but cautionary tone when he reminded Episcopalians that "kindness and graciousness are in order," and that the journey toward reconciliation and unity will be long.  Adams, who only became the Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina a year ago, will play a pivotal role in reconstituting a Diocese now filled with former Church members who no longer have confidence in its mission.

breakaway "diocese" itself appeared to be reeling from the Court ruling, but also continued the bravado that has for years characterized its communications on the case.  Its website continues to point to key findings in the lower court ruling that were favorable to Lawrence's position even though that ruling has now been turned on its head.

Lawrence's lead attorney, Alan Runyon of Beaufort, denounced the Court's opinion as "inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent" involving church property disputes.

he premise of Runyon's case was that the Episcopal Church is a congregational rather than hierarchical Church, and therefore the authority for determining the ownership of parish property belongs in state courts without deference to the Constitutional protections provided denominations like the Episcopal Church  In his view, the Episcopal Church is little more than a non-profit association with members who are free to come and go as they'd like.  

In a rare moment of unanimity, the high court rejected Runyon's characterization and found that the Episcopal Church is "hierarchical" in a way that requires the United States Constitution to protect its governing authorities from excessive encroachment by the courts.  Runyon's statement notwithstanding, this view of the Episcopal Church has been consistently upheld by Federal courts for over 200 years.

Breakaways' allies lash out

hile many of the pro-Lawrence parishes were subdued today, the right-wing Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), which has aggressively backed the schism in South Carolina, lashed out.  

According to IRD's leader, Jeffrey Walton, "Episcopal Church officials speak regularly about themes of reconciliation, but their actions in the courts indicate that property and exclusivity of their Anglican Communion franchise is paramount. The Episcopal Church has spent millions of dollars to litigate against departing Anglicans.  The Episcopal Church and its liberal Mainline Protestant counterparts refuse to accept what has become obvious: the majority of many congregations across the country do not want to depart their denominations, but will do so if liberal leadership continues down an unfaithful path.  Sadly, the Episcopal Church appears more interested in the recovery of property than in reconciliation."

Walton's comments typify the misleading rhetoric that has surrounded this case since its beginning.  Lawrence is the one who brought the lawsuit against the Episcopal Church, not the other way around.  In fact, the claim Lawrence was making is the largest ever made in any case ever filed in any court by the Church or secessionists within the Church.  

In some ways IRD is partly to blame for today's debacle.  It has been a significant promoter of the flawed and untested legal theory put forward by Lawrence's legal team.  

After years of self-congratulatory chatter among the small circle of breakaway legal types, Lawrence supporters began to buy into IRD's flawed thinking on the case.  In 2015, when the Episcopal Church offered to settle their lawsuit by withdrawing any claim to their properties, they were so confident of success in the courts that they walked away from the offer

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