Split Episcopal dioceses fight in court over millions in property

Published 8:22 am Friday, August 4, 2017

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dozens of parishes that split from The Episcopal Church over theological issues including the ordination of gay priests cannot take real estate with them, according to a split ruling issued Wednesday by South Carolina’s highest court.

The South Carolina Supreme Court decision settled some of the issues swirling in the wake of the 2012 departure of several dozen dioceses from The Episcopal Church. Attorneys on both sides of the long-awaited resolution were still reviewing it Wednesday and did not immediately comment.

The conservative Diocese of South Carolina, dating to 1785 and one of the original dioceses that joined to form the Episcopal Church, left the national church in 2012 amid differences over theological issues, including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays. The group has since affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America, a group that formed in 2009.

Email newsletter signup

Parishes in the region that didn’t leave the national church formed a diocese known as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

The conservative diocese sued in efforts to protect its identity, the diocesan seal and other symbols it uses, and $500 million in church property, including the individual parishes’ holdings, as well as large properties including an Episcopal church camp in the Charleston area.

A circuit judge sided with the diocese in 2014, ruling it owned its name, symbols and property. But on Wednesday, acting Justice Costa Pleicones wrote in the lead opinion that the judge had improperly ruled she was required “to ignore the ecclesiastical setting in which these disputes arose.” The trial court judge had viewed The Episcopal Church incorrectly as a congregational entity, with no structure to prevent individual parishes from leaving, Pleicones noted. The justice said the church is a hierarchical organization, with a structure.

Under that construct, only a handful of departed parishes — those that didn’t sign onto an agreement allowing the national church to hold their properties in trust — should be allowed to keep their land and properties, he wrote.