South Carolina Episcopalians
An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans
not affiliated with ACNA, the Episcopal Church or its dioceses
June 24, 2018
Three Breakaway Wardens in Charleston Reject U.S. and State Supreme Court Decisions
St. Michael's, St. Phillip's, & St. Luke & St. Paul: "We have a far different perspective."
The three parishes have lost more than half their membership under Lawrence but insist they'll continue the fight to take their historic parish properties away from the Church.
In a bizarre letter to Charleston's Post & Courier this morning, the wardens of three former breakaway parishes in Charleston say they will not accept last August's decision by the South Carolina's high court rejecting their claims of exclusive ownership of $500 million in Episcopal Church property because they believe the opinions provided by the justices in the 3-2 majority were not sufficiently unified to be credible to them.
They also say this month's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to deny their appeal of that ruling changes nothing and only means "that the court was unwilling to resolve this conflict between the lower courts."
Actually, that is not what it means at all.
When the U.S. Supreme Court refuses to take an appeal, it means that the lower court ruling remains in place, and becomes precedent that governs decisions on future cases. It also means that there were not at least four justices (out of nine) who believed the lower court ruling was inconsistent with existing Constitutional precedents, in this case those governing Church property.
While the case is over from a legal standpoint, in a letter to the Letter to the Editor this morning, the wardens of St. Phillip's, St. Michael's, and St. Luke & St. Paul announced that they intend to continue their "legal defense" against whomever it is they imagine they are attacking them. Based on the letter, their presumed attackers include the Courts, the Constitution, and the Church.
"Our Houses of Worship, established by faithful generations before us, are worth protecting for our children and our grandchildren. And the faith we proclaim there, the immutable Gospel of Christ , is worth defending," they continued.
(By the way, they technically are not defending anything. It was their congregations that brought a lawsuit against the Church in 2013 demanding that the courts give them sole ownership of their parish properties that triggered all this. No one or no thing has attacked them. In fact, the legitimate Episcopal Bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina says they are welcome to stay in the buildings and continue to worship God as they and their families always have.)
According to the state Supreme Court last August, the properties of the three Charleston parishes and 26 others that joined them as plaintiffs belong with the Episcopal Church and always have. The same is true for St. Christopher Camp & Conference Center on Seabrook Island, and the corporate entity known as "The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina."
In the Episcopal Church, congregations do own their own property, but hold it in trust for the work of the Episcopal Church and its local diocese. The state Supreme Court ruled last August that the 36 plaintiff congregations violated that trust when they removed all references to the Church in their governing documents.
The state Supreme Court's ruling in this matter was remarkably similar to those in nearly twenty other states that have had to deal with schismatic groups trying to grab off Church property. Breakaways in Virginia tried to appeal part of their state Supreme Court's pro-Church ruling and were similarly rebuffed in 2014.
It was not clear what the wardens were saying about an ongoing "conflict between the lower courts" in their letter.
Episcopal Church to the rescue of Lawrencian parishes
Ironically, these recent rulings could be the catalysts that save the beleaguered parishes led by the three wardens.
According to Lawrence's own organization, the combined loss of members among the three congregations during his tenure as their bishop has been nearly 52%. Financial reports suggest they've lost revenues and operated for all or part of the previous years in the red. They have apparently used other long-standing assets to survive, but now their leaders will probably be held liable for paying them back.
Loyal Episcopalians, who provided much of the regular income to the breakaway parishes pre-Lawrence, are now considering returning. Most either fled or were forced out of these parishes by pro-Lawrence factions, but today potentially will be the juice that brings them back from the edge.
The Lawrence 'diocese' itself racked up more than $280,000 in deficit spending in 2017. On the other hand, the Episcopal Church's continuing Diocese in South Carolina was the fastest growing of all its dioceses in 2017.
Breakaways views on the state Supreme Court's ruling are irrelevant
Bishop Lawrence is a good teacher and pastor, but not so much a lawyer. The three wardens probably had no idea what he was saying when they copied his words into their letter to the editor this morning.
The opinions of the state Supreme Court justices after a decision has been handed down, and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court has been denied, are largely irrelevant. The part that matters is that a three-vote majority carried the day for the Church and the nation's highest court allowed it to stand. The lawsuit is over. It will not be reheard by another court.
The opinions of the justices will matter in future lawsuits on Church property, but this precedent will continue to govern them, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court in effect did not find it to be out of line with similar rulings in other states and with the U.S. Constitution.
Lawrence has encouraged his followers to think the ruling of the state's high court can't be enforced because the justices didn't bases their votes on the same logic.
Sadly, the Lawrence propaganda machine is also telling their people the case is not over. This is false hope. It also has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and everything to do with the political needs of ideological enemies of the Church, who mostly are not even in South Carolina.
Implementation is just beginning.
Months ago the S.C. Supreme Court "remitted" its August 2017 ruling to the First Judicial Circuit (Dorchester, Orangeburg, & Calhoun counties) for implementation, not retrial. That task has gone to Judge Edgar Dickson from Orangeburg. His role is to oversee the transition of the 29 parishes and Camp St. Christopher to Episcopal Church control, as required by the state Supreme Court.
Attorneys for the Episcopal Church have filed a motion asking Judge Dickson to appoint a "special master" to take on the day-to-day administration of the Court's ruling. Normally, a position like this is filled by a retired judge or senior attorney. Its purpose is to expedite the implementation so that all the parties in a case can get on with their lives. Lawyers in the case expect a ruling from Dickson sometime this summer.
There is also a related case pending in Federal Court in Charleston aimed at securing the return of the "Diocese of South Carolina" corporate to the Church and its local diocese. That case involves 50 parishes that actually aligned themselves with Lawrence in 2012 and have intentionally interfered with the work of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and wrongfully benefited from advertising themselves as "The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" or simply "The Diocese of South Carolina."
That case could result in significant damages being assessed against the wardens and vestries of the parishes as well as against Lawrence and his lieutenants.
Lawrence (or at least his website) has assured his people the lawsuit is laughable and inconsequential. Six years ago he similarly assured them they could leave the Episcopal Church with their parish properties.