Federal judge remands lawsuit to state court

[Episcopal Church in South Carolina — press release] The lawsuit filed by a breakaway group against the Episcopal Church and its local diocese in eastern South Carolina will be heard in state court, not federal court, U.S. District Court Judge C. Weston Houck ruled June 10.

The Episcopal Church in South Carolina had sought to have the case heard in federal court, citing First Amendment issues raised by the case. The lawsuit will now return to South Carolina Circuit Court and Judge Diane S. Goodstein in Dorchester County, said Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr., chancellor of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina. Judge Houck’s order cannot be appealed.

“We are obviously disappointed with the result, but we are confident in our legal position going forward,” Mr. Tisdale said.

The lawsuit was filed in January by a group of former church leaders and some 34 parishes in eastern South Carolina who say they have “disassociated” from The Episcopal Church, seeking control of the name, seal and properties of the diocese. The group continues to call itself “The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina,” and recognizes Mark Lawrence as its bishop.

Defendants in the suit are the Episcopal Church and its local diocese, which is currently using the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.” Its bishop is the Right Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, who was elected by local Episcopalians in January after Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori accepted Mark Lawrence’s renunciation of his orders as a bishop in The Episcopal Church.

“We believe that the critical First Amendment issues at the center of this case would have been most appropriately resolved in federal court, but we respect the court’s decision to return this case to state court,” said Matthew D. McGill of the Washington, D.C. office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, who spoke for TECSC in last week’s hearing before Judge Houck.

“The federal court recognized that The Episcopal Church is a hierarchical church and we hope that the state court will recognize the First Amendment right of all such churches to organize and administer their affairs without government interference,” Mr. McGill said. “Our federal litigation against Bishop Lawrence continues and we hope soon will confirm that he is no longer the Bishop of the Diocese because he left the church of which the Diocese is a part.”

A separate federal lawsuit is still before Judge Houck. Filed in March by Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg against Mark Lawrence, it asks the court to find that only Bishop vonRosenberg, as The Episcopal Church’s recognized bishop, should control the name and marks of the diocese.

The federal suit, vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, cites federal trademark law and a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich. Under that decision, civil courts may not interfere in decisions made by hierarchical churches, such as The Episcopal Church, about decisions as to who is the true bishop of a diocese.


  1. Ron Caldwell says:

    In remanding the suit to state court, Judge Houck cited the All Saints Waccamaw case time and again. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the independent diocese has won the fight in SC, at least for the moment. SC state courts are all but certain to rule in favor of the Lawrence faction. Two other breakaway dioceses are much closer to settlements, Ft. Worth and San Joaquin. A ruling on the former may come any day from the state supreme court while a court trial date for the latter has been set for January of 2014. It is most likely that one of these will be appealed to SCOTUS. Eventually there will have to be a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court to settle the issue of whether TEC can control its own structure. If dozens on dozens of federal court rulings are a guide, I am betting on TEC.

  2. Carol McRee says:

    A few factual corrections, First off, Judge Houck cited the All Saints Pawleys Island decision once. Second, it is too early to say that anyone has *won* the litigation in SC as all documents are currently being sent back to SC Circuit Court and Judge Goodstein. No trial date has been decided upon for this case. Third, if dozens upon dozens of federal court rulings support TEC’s position, then why did not Judge Houck cite them as he is a Federal District Court judge? A decision in the Fort Worth is indeed imminent. Interestingly enough the same tactic that did not work in Texas is the exact strategy tried in SC ….. again to failure. It is unlikely that SCOTUS will take up TEC’s cause. SCOTUS review has been asked and denied many times in church property cases.

    • Ron Caldwell says:

      Ms. McRee, read the ruling again. All Saints Waccamaw is given by name on pages 15, 16, and 17. In addition, the core part of that decision, “neutral principles” on property is discussed on pages 12-19. In short, Judge Houck relied heavily on that ruling.

      For the last three months, Judge Goldstein has quietly deferred to the federal court. She was asked to grant a Contempt of Court citation against vonRosenberg and she refused. Now that the matter is remanded back to her we can expect her to continue with her well-established approach of favoring the Lawrence faction. Following the All Saints Waccamaw case, we know how the SC courts are going to rule. To be sure there is still a pending suit in federal court but surely it will have the same fate as the earlier matter. It is only a matter of time before the state courts rule in favor of Lawrence.

      At last count there were nearly 100 court decision relating to secessions of parishes from Episcopal dioceses. In these, federal courts have overwhelmingly followed the hierarchical rule. The only case finally settled against TEC was the famous All Saints Waccamaw ruling in SC, and as Judge Houck pointed out it followed the “neutral principles” rule.

      However, the issue of parishes leaving dioceses is not the same as dioceses leaving TEC. The question of whether a diocese can “disassociate” intact has yet to be resolved and thus has not been appealed to SCOTUS. It is bound to reach there in time and I think we all know how that will turn out given the track record of federal courts favoring hierarchical institutions. Secessionist dioceses may win in the short run in state courts on the property issue but they will not win in the long run on the institutional issue.

      • Zachary Brooks says:

        Matters don’t necessary have to go before the Supreme Court. Between the state courts and the Supreme Court are the United States Courts of Appeals, which is practically as good for the TEC’s case as the Supreme Court.

  3. Carol McRee says:

    An excellent post and analysis of Judge Houck’s decision is at http://accurmudgeon.blogspot.com. Very interesting reading even if you are not an attorney.

  4. Perry Brannen says:

    The Presiding Bishop accepted a renunciation which was never made. Canon 3 was ignored. A renunciation cannot be accepted when there charges pending. Bp, Lawrence had been charged with preaching at his son’s ordination and failing to veto a resolution passed by diocesan convention. Check it out.

  5. West Jacocks says:

    There is much talk about whether the Episcopal Church is really a “hierarchical” church. Of course TEC bleats continually that they are hierarchical and some judges have agreed (the case cited by Judge Houck related to a suit between a bishop and a priest). I believe that the Episcopal church is hierarchical on a diocesan level. The diocesan bishop is “hierarchical” over the priests in his (or her) diocese. What is less clear is whether the national church is “hierarchical” over the individual dioceses. Unlike the Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Church, the Episcopal Church does not have a Pope or Metropolitan (no matter how much +KJS would like to pretend she’s a pope). The Dioceses came together to form a “National Church”. The constitution of the church is much more similar to the “Articles of Confederation” than to the “Constitution of the US”. The various dioceses belong to the “National Church” in the same way that the US belongs to the UN. It is a voluntary association. Despite all protests to the contrary, there is nothing in the constitution of TEC that prohibits a diocese from leaving. See the court proceedings in San Joaquin. Also, see the Anglican Curmudgeon, he has extensive articles on this subject.

    • Zachary Brooks says:

      The bishops are bound my the General Convention. This malarky about Bishop Schori being a pope is all the paranoid hatred of schismatics which only invalidates their claims of respecting the canons of the Episcopal Church.

  6. Ron Caldwell says:

    The relationship between the Episcopal Church and its constituent dioceses is the crux of the matter at hand. While it is true that the Constitution and Canons of TEC do not explicitly prohibit a diocese from withdrawing from TEC, it is very clearly implied, just as in the case of the United States Constitution that also does not directly forbid states from withdrawing from the Union. Can a state secede from the United States? I think we all know the answer to that, even the people of South Carolina, the state that paid the heaviest price for testing it.

    When local entities form a unified group and make a constitution for the group, the local entities give the constitution power over each and every part of the group. That is the very nature of an overall constitution. Therefore its powers are clearly implied in its nature. The rules apply to all alike. The C and C of TEC lists the rules and regulations that apply to all dioceses. It does not say that dioceses may pick and choose which rules to follow and which to nullify. In other words, when local parts form a whole they surrender sovereignty to the whole. Sovereignty cannot rest in both the unity and in each constituent part. Therefore, Bishop Lawrence was wrong to say that the Diocese of South Carolina was a sovereign diocese. Dioceses in TEC cannot be sovereign. In reality, the Diocese of SC gave up sovereignty when it acceded to the C and C of the Episcopal Church.

    To be sure, TEC is not a dictatorship. It allows the individual dioceses to have great latitude in each one’s internal affairs. Indeed, a dozen Episcopal dioceses consistently retain a decidedly conservative attitude. However, a diocese is limited in its powers. Its rights end at the edge of the C and C; and those conservative dioceses recognize and accept that.

    In the bigger picture, the institution of the Episcopal Church as we know it is in a struggle for its life. If it cannot protect its sovereignty over the dioceses, the C and C of TEC will collapse. For those of us who love the Episcopal Church, that would be a disaster. For those who despise the Episcopal Church that will be a great thing. The Anglican Church in North America calls itself a “province in formation.” It expects to replace TEC and the Anglican church of Canada as the Anglican Communion province in North America. In this view, “orthodoxy” will prevail over the fatally heretical liberalism of the others. As far-fetched as that sounds, it is not out of the realm of possibility.

    The Presiding Bishop has shown that she sees her responsibilities in the same manner as did President Lincoln. She is in for the long fight to preserve the union. Indeed, TEC just granted over a million dollars additional aid to San Joaquin and South Carolina.

    While we argue about institutional and legal issues, we should not forget that the trigger for these disagreements was the interface of religion and human rights, just as slavery was the trigger for the Civil War. Those of us who love the Episcopal Church must rally around the flag and keep the faith. I believe that we stand for the just cause, for equal rights for all God’s people, for replacing prejudice, bigotry, and fear with Christ’s love and compassion. I am proud to say that the Church I gave my heart to a long time ago has fought the good fight for over fifty years now. In the end the right cause will prevail just as it did in 1865 thanks to God and the better angels of our nature.

  7. Andy John Spencer says:

    Ron, your comment “Those of us who love the Episcopal Church must rally around the flag and keep the faith” show the exact problem within the Episcopal Church – you are rallying a round a flag and not Christ himself and his teachings. You also say “I believe that we stand for the just cause” – but it’s not really about what you believe -it’s about what the historic church has been entrusted with – the gospel of Jesus Christ – his teachings and obedience to his commands not to what culture demands

    • Zachary Brooks says:

      And what about the promises Jesus made to His Church? Shouldn’t we have faith in them too? Or is the Church to be tossed to the wilderness the moment it fails, because Jesus forsakes his Church so easily?

  8. West Jacocks says:

    Ron Caldwell, you make my point for me, the constitution of the Episcopal church is not like the Constitution of the United States. Each Diocese is sovereign, they belong to the “National Church” by choice. The current constitution is much more like the old Articles of Confederacy, which were replaced by the current Constitution of the US. The “National Church” has subsumed power it was never meant to have. For years, mutual bonds of affection have kept the dioceses together. Those bonds have been eroded over the last 30-40 years, and have now been broken. You cannot keep a church together by force (or threat of lawsuit).

  9. Carol McRee says:

    Andy John Spencer, You are spot on!! Those who love TEC tend to love the institution not the faith of Jesus Christ. It is indeed about the fundamentals of the historic Christian faith. TEC’s “faith” is best described as “a radical fringe scriptural interpretation that makes following Christ’s teachings optional for salvation”. (from Diocese of SC press release 6/10).

    Zachary, It is those who love TEC who have forsaken Jesus Christ and his teachings not the other way around. I believe He said “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. I do not think that Jesus Christ has forsaken his church in any way.

    • Zachary Brooks says:

      I forgive you for your monumental hubris against me, Carol, in imagining you can read my heart and find it faithless.

  10. Carol McRee says:

    Ron Caldwell. Please read again. The All Saint’s case was mentioned ONCE in the text and perhaps three times in footnotes- hardly going on and on about it. Judge Houck also mentions many other cases (many of which are federal) as well and some of those multiple times. The mentioning and discussion of previous cases is an expected part of his legal reasoning process. So why would he leave it out of his decision? His decision was very well researched unlike some briefs which deliberately left out pertinent facts perhaps to hopefully confuse the judge. Notice Judge Houck summarily dismissed TEC’s Landham Act argument for removal to federal court in 4 sentences. Also, Judge Houck did not fall for TEC’s first amendment cause “tactic” either. That discussion was indeed the majority of his decision comprising some several pages. However, he carefully eviscerates TEC’s first amendment argument in those pages. Judge Houck’s decision was well researched and the only just conclusion he could have made following the law.

    • Zachary Brooks says:

      The schismatics really need to keep some perspective on this ruling. All that has happened is that the judge has decided there is no federal jurisdiction in this case yet. When the state does make a ruling, there will pretty indubitably be a federal appeal no matter which side wins. Absolutely nothing has been won, and you really need to chill out.

  11. Ron Caldwell says:

    “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is inscribed on many a sign in front of Episcopal Churches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. That “You” stands without qualification, limitation, or question, a simple “You.” As God’s love and mercy stand equally before all people, so the Episcopal Church has made its stand to include fully all persons regardless of race, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation. Some Church people have disagreed with that. They have left the Episcopal Church because they do not want that “You” to apply to the full inclusion of gays and lesbians into the life of the church. So, the difference between the loyalists and the rebels boils down to the definition of one word, “You.”

    For many years now that “You” has been missing at St. Paul’s Church in Bakersfield, California, the parish whose rector, the Very Rev. Mark Lawrence, had developed an increasing opposition to the decisions of the Episcopal Church before he was elected bishop of the TEC diocese of South Carolina. The non-Episcopal congregation that has been illegally occupying that Episcopal Church property for six years is vacating the place on July 27 as the Episcopal congregation moves back in. The first thing the Episcopalians should do is gather on the front lawn and proudly raise their sign “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”

  12. West Jacocks says:

    Another red herring. Of course the Episcopal Church Welcomes You. The rightful Diocese of South Carolina, headed by Bishop Lawrence, welcomes everyone as well. No one is turned out of church because he/she is a sinner. If only non-sinners were welcome, the churches would be empty. The true Gospel is that Jesus Christ died for our sins, that we might be made righteous before the Holy God, and rose again. The “gospel” (which is no good news at all) of TEC is that you do not have to change your sinful ways, all are loved just as they are and no repentance is necessary.

    • Ron Caldwell says:

      When open, partnered gays and lesbians are welcomed to be Sunday School teachers, lay readers, chalice bearers, vestrypersons, wardens, deacons and priests in “the rightful Diocese of South Carolina, headed by Bishop Lawrence” please let us all know. It will be front page news. Until then they will be treated as second-class citizens. It was the Episcopal Church’s acceptance of a partnered gay man as a bishop and the adoption of an optional rite for the blessing of same sex unions that triggered South Carolina’s secession from the union in 2012.

  13. Carol McRee says:

    Absolutely correct, Wes Jacocks! ABSOLUTELY ACCURATE! Despite much mis-information from many sources, The Diocese of South Carolina did NOT disaffiliate over homosexuality or anything else related to sexuality. Sure that grabs headlines but that was never true. In fact, the Diocese of SC was part of TEC for several years after VGR became a bishop. The real reason is the many theological differences between the Diocese of SC and TEC. Alas, TEC did not want to be inclusive enough so conservatives could be part of such a “welcoming” church. The diocese’s disaffiliation was triggered by the “inhibition” of Bishop Lawrence’s ministry DESPITE ongoing negotiations at the same time between Bishop Lawrence and The Presiding Bishop.

  14. Carol McRee says:

    I doubt there will be a federal appeal now that a federal judge has shown that there is no reason for federal jurisdiction in this case. The highest state court is the SC Supreme Court. Once the state courts rule, that will be the final ruling. Remember TEC decided NOT to appeal to the SC Supreme Court decision to SCOTUS. I do agree that everyone needs to calm down. There is still much to be decided via litigation. This is step 1.

  15. Ron Caldwell says:

    It is good to see these widely-varying comments on this site as they prove my point above that “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” means you without limitation, prejudice, bigotry, or discrimination. This, the official website of the Episcopal Church welcomes all comments (as long as they stay within The Comment Policy below). The door is wide open even to the most absurd assertions. Here, all people are treated equally, all views tolerated. Now, try going to the well-known pro-Lawrence faction websites and trashing their side and see what happens. Thank you commentators for helping the Episcopal Church demonstrate that it is the denomination for all people. And thank you website hosts for providing for all of us this excellent format.

    • Joseph F Foster says:

      “Thank you commentators for helping the Episcopal Church demonstrate that it is the denomination for all people.”.

      It’s not the “denomination” for me. Thank you for helping demonstrate that.

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