Breakaway South Carolina Episcopalians win major court case

c. 2015 Religion News Service

(RNS) The Episcopal Church lost a major court battle on Tuesday (Feb. 3) when a South Carolina judge ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina legally seceded from the denomination, and can retain control of $500 million in church property and assets.

The Charleston-based Diocese of South Carolina voted to secede in 2012 after the national church accused its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, of abandoning the church and taking his diocese with him. The diocese said it helped form the national church in 1789, and was not legally bound to stay.

Lawrence insisted he and the 38 parishes that followed him out of the national church comprised the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The 30 parishes that remained part of the national church sued, asking a judge to determine who could legally claim the name “Episcopal” and who controlled the property.

On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the national church has “no provisions which state that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership.” The diocese was chartered in 1785, four years before the national church.

“With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Goodstein ruled.

Goodstein’s decision affects the fates of some of Charleston’s most iconic churches, whose towering steeples and colonial charm helped earn Charleston the nickname “the Holy City.”

The ruling follows similar decisions in Fort Worth, Texas, and Quincy, Ill., in which judges have ruled in favor of breakaway dioceses, even as most courts have said the property of individual breakaway parishes belongs to the denomination.

The national church allows same-sex blessings and gay bishops, but Lawrence said the decades-long battles over sexuality were just a “distraction” in the South Carolina fight.

“This has never been about exclusion,” he said in a statement. “Our churches, our diocese, are open to all. It’s about the freedom to practice and proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us.”

The parishes that remain loyal to the national denomination, known as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, plan to appeal Goodstein’s ruling, with its chief lawyer, Thomas S. Tisdale, calling the ruling “not unexpected.”

“We have understood from the beginning that this lawsuit was mounted after years of planning by individuals who were intent upon taking the diocese and its property out of The Episcopal Church,” spokeswoman Holly Behre said. “We have also understood that defending ourselves will be a long legal process.”

A separate suit in federal court accuses Lawrence of “false advertising” by “continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese.”

A spokeswoman for the national denomination, based in New York, declined to comment on either case.

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12 Comments on "Breakaway South Carolina Episcopalians win major court case"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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George Nixon Shuler

I don’t know about that. Breakaway congregations do so at their peril. It’s not a wise course action and once TSHTF they will be left holding the bag.

George Nixon Shuler

People say that about Congress all the time but 85-95% of incumbents seeking re-election always win. The idea there will be a “housecleaning” is a fantasy – too few are willing to rock the boat and the rest are satisfied.


This case has been bounced around for some time with Federal Court rulings and Sate Supreme Court involvement. You can see the entire timeline here
This is more than a simple circuit court case.

Richard Hicks

A circuit judge is little more that a justice of the peace. When I see news of rulings from state supreme counts, and US circuit courts I’ll be interested in reading. Thank you, Richard F Hicks, OKC


A conservative diocese breaks away from a liberal denomination and it all ends up in court. This is what happens when a split is not amicable. Messy. There are lessons to be learned but I am guessing we will not learn them. Not something to look forward to.

George Nixon Shuler

For the UMC, such is preventable if our right wing can be given a chance for an aimiable severance.


This represents a victory for justice.

John Thomas

No. Please recognize the incredible harm this decision does for all connectional denominations, and the harm caused by both “sides” in this case to each other, and to the abilities for both dioceses to function in community, and in mission to non-Christians.
From my perspective, this is not a just decision for women and LGBT persons — both of whom will likely not be allowed to pursue ordination in the break-away diocese.

Wes Andrews
The ONLY reason any denomination would hold the titles to local church facilities is to hold the local church hostage. Local church congregations should WANT to be part of their denominational connection. The denomination should be so helpful and effective that it would be crazy for any local church to want to leave. It really would a great method to provide the denomination and its leaders with consequences for their bad leadership or bad use of local church resources. My guess, if this bad policy were fixed there would be quite a few progressive congregations that would leave. And that… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler

A church body like ECUSA or the UMC is to the local church as McDonald’s the megacorporation is to its local franchisee. When a franchisee violates official policy, the terms of the franchise permit wide range for corrective measures by the franchisor. When a local Mickey D’s becomes a run down lounge for layabouts with filthy bathrooms and rats in the kitchen, corporate swoops in and shuts ’em down.

John S.

Exactly, and the GC treats the local congregations as cash cows to be milked and otherwise ignored.


Excellent points, Wes.

The biggest injustice of all would be denying a congregation its property simply because it is following the dictates of the faith better than the dictatorial hierarchy trying to take it!

And the analogy of a fast food franchise is totally specious. Franchise agreements vary widely, but they don’t include taking the property of the franchisee!

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