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South Carolina Episcopalians

September 28, 2019

Lawrencian Spin Doctors Still Hiding Hard Truth from Former Breakaways

St. Philip's Attorney still insists congregation's property issue not settled by Supreme Court


Members of St. Philip's in Charleston forwarded us a letter from their parish attorney, Mr. Ben Hagood, about the legal status of the parish in light of this month's decision by Federal Judge Richard Gergel and the 2017 South Carolina Supreme Court decision on whether parishes once aligned with  ex-Bishop Mark Lawrence can leave the Church without its consent.

We mean no disrespect to Mr. Hagood, but his letter was simply a recitation of the spin-doctoring from ex-Bishop Lawrence's legal team, whose interpretations of legal developments in the case have puzzled and confused Church and parish attornys for years.  (Judge Gergel agreed with us, and even added "intentional" as part of his reaction to their efforts to misled the public and their own followers.)


SC Episcopalians is not a lawyer nor does it claim to be a legal authority, so you can take all this with a grain of salt.  However, we've been covering this matter for nearly twenty years, and been present for every courtroom event and interviewed all the major players, and feel it is important that the congregation have an understanding of what is really happening.


1a.   Mr. Hagood.   On September 19, 2019, U.S. Federal District Judge Richard Gergel ruled that St. Philip’s Church, and the other parishes in our diocese that disassociated from The Episcopal Church (TEC), are free to continue using their historic parish names. The formal, legal name of our parish is “The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, in Charleston, in the State of South Carolina.” For some years, we have simply been known as “St. Philip’s Church.” Judge Gergel ruled that the historic inclusion of the word “episcopal” in our name does not constitute trademark infringement, trademark dilution, or false advertising as claimed by TEC and its affiliated diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC). 

1b.   SC Episcopalians:  True. 


-  The precise ruling by Judge Gergel was that Church lawyers failed to offer sufficient evidence that St. Philip’s use of the word “Episcopal” in its name was causing confusion.  There's a difference.


-  Before and after 2012, you were known as St. Philip's Episcopal Church, according to your own records, advertising, and parish documents. 

 2a.  Mr. Hagood:  In a separate, contemporaneous order Judge Gergel ruled that the seal and names of our diocese (specifically, “Diocese of South Carolina,” “The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina,” and “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina”) infringe upon the trademarks of TEC and TECSC and that our diocese and all of its parish churches, including St. Philip’s Church, are permanently enjoined from using these marks or any mark confusingly similar. 

2b.  SC Episcopalians:  True.  It would have been more true if Mr. Hagood explained that the re-assignment of the "corporate marks" of the "Diocese of South Carolina" to the Episcopal Church means that the Church owns the Diocese of South Carolina and all its assets and properties.  That means that both the Federal and state courts are in agreement on this point.


3a.  St. Philip's Attorney:  On September 20, our diocese changed its name to “The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina.” 

3b.   SC Episcopalians:   False.  The name of your Diocese is the Episcopal Church in South Carolina or the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, as they are the same thing.   Your parish is, and always has been, part of the Episcopal Church. 

In August 2017 the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that only seven of the 36 plaintiff parishes in Lawrence's 2013 lawsuit against the Episcopal Church had the legal capacity to leave the Church without its consent.  St. Philip’s was among the 29 others that the Court determined could not leave the Church without its consent.  That prohibition extends to any attempt to join another "diocese" or Church.   


In 2015 the Episcopal Church and its Presiding Bishop offered to give its consent to your leaving the Church and taking your property with you.   You turned down the offer, such that, in many ways, your status as a parish in the Episcopal Church was own choice.

 4a.   St. Philip's Attorney.   It is important to note that this federal trademark and false advertising litigation does not affect the property ownership issues of St. Philip’s Church and the other parishes. Those issues currently remain in state trial court before Circuit Judge Edgar W. Dickson. 

3b.  SC Episcopalians:   
False.  There are no property disputes before Judge Dickson.  St. Philip’s, the Episcopal Church, and the state Supreme Court all agree that your congregation owns your property and buildings, and always has.  


The controlling issue in the 2017 Supreme Court decision had to do with Trust law, not property ownership.  It affirmed that the Dennis Canon in the governing documents of the Episcopal Church agrees that the parishes own their own property, but that ownership is conditioned on the parish's continued willingness to operate for the benefit of the Church.  Should the parish no longer choose to operate for the benefits of the Church, the Trust relationship is dissolved with the ownership of the parish property and assets revert to the Church.


Each of the 29 congregations that tried and failed to leave the Episcopal Church with Lawrence need to decide if they want to accept the Church's offer to continue on as part of the Church.  If they do not, they need to vacate their buildings as they would be in contempt of court for ignoring the law.

The 2017 decision by the state's high court was handed down ("remitted") to Judge Dickson for implementation in late 2017, and your attorney and those of ex-Bishop Lawrence, have been trying their best to get him to stumble into re-opening that decision.  However, he has no authority to reopen the case or overturn that decision.  On two occasions your lawyer and those of other breakaway congregations asked the Supreme Court twice to re-hear the case, and the justices dismissed them saying: “the petitions for rehearing have been denied, and the opinions previously filed in this case reflect the final decision of this Court."


Even Judge Gergel tried to get you to pay attention to this fact in his opinion when he stated flatly that the case was over.  


4a.  Mr. Hagood: 
Judge Dickson has held two hearings on motions related to the property ownership issues.

4b.  SC Episcopalians:  False. 
Judge Dickson has not held any hearings on property issues.   In the spring of 2018, the state Supreme Court assigned him the task of overseeing the transition of the 29 plaintiff parishes back into the Church.  The only hearings Dickson has held have been on how he should implement the 2017 decision, even though Lawrence's attorneys ran roughshod over him and used them to attack the Supreme Court.

5a.     Mr. Hagood:  Last November he (Dickson) held hearings on a motion filed by us, our diocese, and associated parishes, seeking clarification of the South Carolina Supreme Court opinions.  This motion includes our argument that the Supreme Court opinions concluded that those parishes that did not expressly accede in writing to TEC’s Dennis Cannon retain ownership of their property; that St. Philip’s Church, and the other parishes, never expressly acceded in writing to the Dennis Canon; and that no judge has made a finding of fact to the contrary. This motion is still under consideration by Judge Dickson. 


5b.  SC Episcopalians.   Magical thinking.   There is nothing that prevents lawyers from filing any kind of motions in court they want.  Motions don't have to be especially relevant and often are just for show for the benefit of clients or the news media.   


A motion seeking "clarification" of a higher court's  decision in a lower court is a scam and a waste of clients' money.  Lawyers for the breakaways made two motions asking the state Supreme Court for clarification after the decision was handed down in 2017.   They made that argument again in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.  All were all turned down. 


Sadly, for most of us that constitutes "clarification" in our judicial system.


However, Judge Dickson has no authority to "clarify" anything anyway.  His job is implementation, not reinterpreting a decision handed down by higher courts. 


Your attorney's suggestion that the Supreme Court owes St. Philip's some kind of explanation is meaningless.  In our legal system, judges don't answer to lawyers.  It's the other way around.  


The same is true with respect to a "acceding in writing" or a "judge's finding of fact."   The Supreme Court ruled that is there is a legally recognized trust relationship between St. Philip‘s and the Episcopal Church by which the congregation’s ownership of its property is contingent on that property being used for the work of the Episcopal Church.  If it is not used for the work of the Church, ownership reverts to the Episcopal Church.  


This Trust relationship and is deeply embedded in the United States Constitution and its philosophy of separation of Church and State, and Judge Dickson is not going to be able overturn it.  (His colleague, Judge Diane Goodstein made a fool of herself in 2015 and lost her campaign for a seat on the state Supreme Court because she because she listened to Lawrence's lawyers.)


In the eyes of the Constitution and the courts, St. Philip's is, and always has been, an Episcopal Church.  Your failure to comply with the 2017 decision is called "contempt of court,"  something that your attorney should explain to you and along with its consequences for those holding official positions in the congregation.


Incidentally, the justices had reams of documents provided by the Church's legal team

pointing precisely to every instance  in which the 29 parishes -- including St. Philip's -- agreed to the Dennis Canon.   Mr. Hagood had access to all of those documents as your lawyer. 


6a. Mr. Hagood:  This past July, Judge Dickson held a hearing in a separate state court case involving the property issues, a case brought under the state Betterments Act. The suit under the Betterments Act alleges that if TEC or TECSC is ultimately determined to be the owners of property held by our diocese and its parishes, including St. Philip’s Church, then the diocese and parishes are entitled to be compensated for all improvements made to the properties. On August 28th Judge Dickson issued an order rejecting TEC and TECSC’s motion that this Betterments Act suit should be dismissed. Judge Dickson has also ordered that all of the property ownership issues and other state court issues should be mediated by the parties.  

6b.  SC Episcopalians.  St. Philip's has no standing to bring a case under the Betterments Act.  This is just another scam that Lawrence's lawyers are using to encourage donations to Lawrence's legal fund. 
Read more about it here.