An Independent Journal of News & Commentary for Anglicans

South Carolina Episcopalians

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April 17, 2018

Judge Expands False Advertising Case to Include 54 Pro-Lawrence Parishes & Trustees as Defendants

In January 2013, hubris led the attorneys for ex-Bishop Mark Lawrence to make a foolish blunder in their legal strategy to leave the Episcopal Church.   Today, it came back to haunt them in spades. 

Ownership of the Diocese was never realistic 

In January 2013, instead of simply asking the courts for a ruling on whether dissident parishes could leave with their properties, the breakaways' legal team got greedy and included in their mega-lawsuit against the Church a claim of ownership to the "Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina" and its financial assets and properties.

When the lawsuit was filed, Lawrence and his lieutenants managed to score a quick victory in convincing the judge to award them temporary control of the corporate “marks” of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, and even the use of its name and several variations.

However, they took it too far.  Lawrence continued to claim to be “an Episcopal bishop” and parishes that followed him were even encouraged to refer to themselves publicly as “Episcopal”, if they so chose.  They took to calling themselves "Anglicans" even though the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Communion itself say that only parishes in the Episcopal Church are Anglican.

Lawrence continued to occupy the official residence of the Bishop of South Carolina, and the Trustees of the Diocese continued to funnel money from trust funds intended for the work of the Episcopal Church to the breakaways.

Just last month, the Lawrence organization held its annual meeting in Mount Pleasant, obstinately referring to it as the “227th Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of South Carolina,” even though the state Supreme Court ruled last summer that it believes the “Diocese of South Carolina” belongs to the Episcopal Church.

Lanham Act

In April 2013, Charles vonRosenberg, the new provisional bishop of the real Episcopal diocese in the eastern half of the state – The Episcopal Church in South Carolina – was faced with a two-part challenge:

First, the Lawrence case was filed in the state court system, as opposed to the Federal where the Courts were more invested in protecting the Constitutional rights of the Church.

Secondly, the breakaways case was focused largely on the Dennis Canon, a 1979 addition to the Church’s governing documents that created a binding, implied trust relationship between the Church and its parishes.  The Dennis Canon had been ruled irrelevant in a 2009 decision by the state Supreme Court, and Lawrence’s attorneys had seized on it in fashioning their case for secession.

Based on the advice of a controversial young attorney in Washington DC, vonRosenberg filed a lawsuit in Federal Court alleging that Lawrence was engaged in “false advertising” and that was creating a level of “confusion” so extensive as to prevent him from doing his job.  He also argued that Lawrence was improperly using the corporate ’marks’ of the Diocese of South Carolina in ways that infringed on trademark protection of the Episcopal Church.

VonRosenberg only filed the lawsuit against Lawrence himself, and based it on the Federal Lanham Act, which allows aggrieved parties to recover damages, misspent funds, and court costs resulting from defendants’ false advertising and trademark infringement.

The lawsuit was brilliant.  It would get the case into Federal Court, and create an avenue through which the Church could recover the Diocese of South Carolina, while avoiding entanglement with the Dennis Canon or state courts. 

However, with the help of an elderly part-time Federal judge, Lawrence’s attorneys were able to bottle up vonRosenberg’s lawsuit for several years.  VonRosenberg's successor, Bishop Skip Adams, took over as the plaintiff two years ago, and the case has moved forward.

Misery loves company

Today the Federal judge overseeing the case granted a motion by Church attorney to expand the defendants in the case to include leaders of 54 parishes that tried to follow ex-Bishop Mark Lawrence out of the Episcopal Church, his trustees, and others as defendants in a Federal lawsuit brought by the rightful bishop of the Episcopal Diocese in eastern South Carolina. 

At his annual meeting, Lawrence described the actions in Federal Court as the Church getting his followers "in the cross-hairs." 

In fact, it is Lawrence who is directly responsible for his people being dragged into the false advertising case.  Lawrence's claims that he is an "Episcopal bishop" was irrelevant to his side's main argument regarding parish property.  Church lawyers subsequently tried for two months last winter to mediate the issues in the case with the Lawrence crowd, but Lawrence continued insist that he is not falsely advertising himself and refused to budge or even talk settlement.

Even more outrageous, Lawrence has known for years that his claim to owning the Diocese was bogus.  Only a few years earlier, his home Diocese of San Joaquin tried exactly the same thing and were blasted out of court by a judge who ruled that it was a ridiculous claim.