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Judge orders 14 church properties to be returned to the The Episcopal Church

Judge orders 14 church properties to be returned to the The Episcopal Church

The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled that 14 church properties in the state must be returned to The Episcopal Church. In a unanimous decision, the court found that the breakaway diocese (the Diocese of South Carolina) does not have legal ownership of these properties and cannot retain them. The ruling is final and cannot be appealed.

The properties now must be returned to The Episcopal Church. Diocese leaders have said they will not return the properties voluntarily and could challenge this order in federal court or seek a stay of execution while considering their options.

A group of disaffected congregations left The Episcopal Church over a disagreement about the ordination of gay clergy, but were ordered to return their buildings.

The Episcopal Church of South Carolina is a group of disaffected congregations that left The Episcopal Church over a disagreement about the ordination of gay clergy, but were ordered to return their buildings.

The Episcopal Church was formed in the United States in 1789 and is a member of the Anglican Communion, a global church with more than 85 million members. It has about 1.7 million active members and 5,000 churches across the country.

The South Carolina Supreme Court recently overturned two lower court rulings and ordered that 14 church properties worth more than $500 million be returned to The Episcopal Church.

The Episcopal Church is a denomination in the Anglican Communion that was formed out of The Church of England and differs from its mother church by, among other things, being far more liberal on issues such as homosexuality and women’s ordination.

The breakaway churches left the umbrella denomination because they became increasingly uncomfortable with the direction in which The Episcopal Church was heading. Particularly, they believe there is no biblical justification for the blessing of homosexual unions or for allowing women to serve as priests, let alone bishops (the latter being a recent development).

In South Carolina, where nine percent of people identify as Episcopalian according to Gallup, members began leaving The Episcopal Church around 2000. By 2008, some 16 congregations had disaffiliated from The Episcopal Church and stormed out with their property. They then associated themselves with a national Anglican body called CANA East (the Convocation of Anglicans in North America). But since their congregations were still registered under state law as part of The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina at the time they seceded, they were technically not “duly constituted” religious groups in the eyes of state law at the time under which they left.

This meant that legally speaking all the congregations’ properties belonged to TECSC — so long as it could prove that it actually owned them. So when Lawrence decided to break ties with The Episcopal Church over theological differences two years ago and head up an independent group called “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” TECSC filed a lawsuit seeking ownership over all properties affiliated with Lawrence’s diocese.

The Episcopal Diocese and individual churches filed suit against the breakaway diocese, led by Bishop Mark Lawrence, and its parishes, including All Saints Parish in Pawleys Island, in 2013.

The Episcopal Diocese and individual churches filed suit against the breakaway diocese, led by Bishop Mark Lawrence, and its parishes, including All Saints Parish in Pawleys Island, in 2013.

The Supreme Court ruled that the trial judge should have granted a motion for summary judgment submitted by The Episcopal Church. That motion asked for a decision in favor of the church without a trial based on the use of national church congregational documents to resolve legal issues.

In an 18-page opinion written by Chief Justice Don Beatty, the justices said Lawrence and his supporters had admitted church polity creates hierarchical authority under which “every member” of The Episcopal Church is subject. The court added that even if those policies were not binding on all members, they would still govern because they were part of agreements between local parishes and their dioceses as well as between dioceses and the national church.

Previously, an S.C. Circuit Court judge ruled that each congregation owned its property, which had been conveyed by the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The circuit court ruled that the diocese did not have the right to leave the national denomination and that it had been wrong in holding the property in trust for The Episcopal Church.

The court ruled instead that the local congregations had the right to keep their properties

But the state Supreme Court ruled that each property belongs to the larger Episcopal Church.

The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned two lower court rulings that had awarded the properties to the breakaway churches in a bitter feud over whether parishes could quit The Episcopal Church and take their property with them.

But the state Supreme Court ruled that each property belongs to the larger Episcopal Church.

In its 5-0 decision, the state’s high court said each church agreed to do business in accordance with a national church charter when it joined The Episcopal Church decades ago.

That’s because parish vestries agreed to do business according to a national church charter that specifies who owns church buildings and other assets.

The court’s decision, handed down on Wednesday, hinged on whether the diocese and its parishes had a right to keep 14 church properties that were held in trust for the national church. The properties include some of South Carolina’s oldest churches, including Trinity Cathedral in Columbia.

That’s because parish vestries agreed to do business according to a national church charter that specifies who owns church buildings and other assets. So, when the local congregations left their affiliation with The Episcopal Church, they violated the trust agreement with national church leaders.

The ruling overturns a decision by S.C. Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein in January 2015 ruling the church properties belonged to local congregations who left the national denomination in 2012 over theological differences.

The South Carolina Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled in favor of The Episcopal Church, ordering 14 church properties be given back to the denomination and affirming a constitution provision that explicitly says church property belongs to the larger church.

The ruling overturns a decision by S.C. Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein in January 2015 ruling the church properties belonged to local congregations who left the national denomination in 2012 over theological differences.

“The trial court committed reversible error when it determined that the Dennis Canon was unconstitutional,” wrote South Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, referencing a 1979 constitution amendment adding language recognizing property rights of individual churches in their respective dioceses and any property they hold as belonging to The Episcopal Church. “This finding is contrary to our case law which requires that this constitutional provision should have been applied.”

In her initial ruling, Goodstein sided with breakaway congregations arguing that their First Amendment right of religious freedom had been violated by what she characterized in the opinion as “the hierarchical structure of The Episcopal Church.”

However, Toal argued that arguments from breakaway groups regarding hierarchy could not nullify clear provisions outlined in The Episcopal Church’s governing documents or its status as an unincorporated entity.

This ruling affects churches with more than half a billion dollars worth of assets

The ruling is a major setback for the breakaway churches and their supporters. The diocese, which retained its name and some of its assets, has about 50 parishes and missions. Its affiliated schools include the prestigious Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina.

If returned to The Episcopal Church as ordered by the court, those diocesan assets are valued at more than $500 million, according to both sides in the case.

The breakaway churches also have at least 40 properties with a combined value of roughly $500 million that were not part of this litigation but could be affected by it because of similar circumstances surrounding their departure from The Episcopal Church and related issues like control over church names.

Attorneys’ fees for this litigation are expected to top $10 million if appeals taken by both sides are included. While much of that expense was paid for by insurance coverage and outside donors, parishioners on both sides are burdened with significant legal bills after a protracted fight that began in 2012 when South Carolina Bishop Mark Lawrence was deposed from his office as head of the diocese because he had abandoned The Episcopal Church in favor of leading a new organization called the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).

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