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State Supreme Court rules 29 breakaway parishes must return property to The Episcopal Church

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The S.C. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that 29 parishes that left The Episcopal Church in 2012 must return their property, reversing a 2015 decision by a circuit court judge.

Seven parishes in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina are allowed to keep their property, though, because the court found the churches never agreed to the Dennis Canon (.pdf, page 40, Section 4) of The Episcopal Church, which imposed a trust on property in favor of The Episcopal Church.

“Under neutral principles of law, the Dennis Canon controls and imposes an express trust on the property in favor of the National Church,” Justice Kaye Hearn wrote in the ruling (.pdf). “Therefore, I concur with the lead opinion (by Justice Costa Pleicones) and would confirm title to the property at issue in the National Church and reverse.”

The 77-page ruling included opinions written by all five justices.

In June 2015, The Episcopal Church offered the breakaway group a settlement that would have let them keep the $500 million in church property but return the diocesan name and property. The group rejected the settlement.

Among the properties that now must be relinquished are St. Philip’s Church on Church Street and St. Michael’s Church on Broad Street. St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center on Seabrook Island must also be returned to the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which stayed with the national church.

The court was split on whether the Episcopal Church in South Carolina had infringed on the intellectual property of the breakaway group by using the names and marks of some breakaway churches, citing a pending federal court case. This leaves in place the 2015 ruling that the intellectual property belongs to the breakaway group.

The Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of South Carolina, said the breakaway group’s legal team is still assessing the implications of the ruling and how the five opinions complement each other.

“It’s a pretty serious decision in terms of what it’s done here and the precedent that it arguably sets in the state of South Carolina,” Lewis said.

He added that the Diocese would be asking for a rehearing on the case.

“I think the nature of the ruling suggests the appropriateness of that, but some of the content of the various opinions here also reflects an interpretation of the law that we would say is significantly in error and merits a rehearing,” Lewis said.

In a letter to parishioners, Bishop Skip Adams said he was thankful for the decision but warned that this would not be the end of the legal road — judicial review and appeals are still possible.

“This ruling is one step on a longer journey and much is unknown at this point,” he said. “Speculation will not be helpful.”

The breakaway group left the national Episcopal Church in 2012 after it tried to remove the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence as bishop. Disagreements about homosexuality and other “moral issues” also divided the church.

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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