Episcopal Church joins federal lawsuit over breakaway group in South Carolina

[Episcopal Church in South Carolina] A federal judge has granted The Episcopal Church’s motion to intervene in a lawsuit over false-advertising and related claims against the bishop of a breakaway group that left the Church in 2012.

The federal case, known as vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, has been assigned to U.S. District Court Judge Richard Gergel, and currently is scheduled to proceed to trial in March 2018. Judge Gergel was assigned the case after the death of Judge C. Weston Houck in July.

The lawsuit was filed in March 2013, a few months after Mark Lawrence and a breakaway group announced they were leaving The Episcopal Church. The suit involves a claim of false advertising under the federal Lanham Act. At that time, Bishop Charles vonRosenberg was the only bishop recognized by The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion as bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. By continuing to represent himself as bishop of the diocese, Mark Lawrence is committing false advertising, the lawsuit says.

Bishop vonRosenberg retired in 2016, and his successor, Bishop Skip Adams, was added as a plaintiff in the case earlier this year.

This month, The Episcopal Church filed a motion to join the case as a plaintiff, saying it has an interest in the litigation because of Bishop Lawrence’s “misuse of marks owned by the Church.”

On Thursday, Judge Gergel ruled in favor of the motion. Bishop Lawrence’s attorneys had argued the motion should be denied, in part because it wasn’t timely. Since the onset of the litigation in 2013, Lawrence’s attorneys twice moved to delay the case. Both times, Bishop vonRosenberg appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which agreed and sent the case back to federal court in Charleston to be heard.

“Defendant’s vehement objections to the timing of the motion for leave to intervene must be taken with a grain of salt,” Judge Gergel wrote. “The four years of delay preceding his answer to the complaint occurred on Defendant’s motion. He cannot now claim he is prejudiced by the delay he requested.”

The federal case is key to resolving trademark issues that were not addressed by the state courts in the lawsuit that the breakaway group, calling itself the “Diocese of South Carolina,” filed against The Episcopal Church and its local diocese in 2013. That case went to the South Carolina Supreme Court, which ruled August 2 in favor of The Episcopal Church and its diocese, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

On the issue of service marks, the five state Supreme Court justices were divided, and the opinions noted that these should be determined in the pending federal proceeding.

Attorneys for all parties attended a scheduling hearing Thursday with Judge Gergel in preparation for trial in 2018.

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