The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a petition to rehear the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina’s case about the ownership status of 29 church properties across the state.
As is often the case, the court did not provide an explanation for its decision.
The S.C. Supreme Court ruled in August that the diocese, which broke away from the national Episcopal Church in 2012, must return the properties, which include St. Philip’s Church on Church Street and St. Michael’s Church on Broad Street. That ruling was written by all five justices and reversed a 2015 circuit court decision.
“We are disappointed the court chose not to resolve a serious division in the lower courts, though our case was a providential opportunity to do so,” the Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary for the Diocese of South Carolina, said in a statement. “The essential issue of what the court means by ‘neutral principles of law’ will remain unresolved for now.”
The Right Rev. Gladstone “Skip” Adams III, bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, said in a statement that he hopes the Supreme Court’s decision brings the issue closer to its resolution.
“We are grateful for the clarity that this decision offers, and hopeful that it brings all of us closer to having real conversations on how we can bring healing and reconciliation to the church,” Adams said.
According to Thomas S. Tisdale Jr., chancellor for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, the federal Supreme Court’s decision will not cause an immediate change in the physical control of the properties; instead, the state’s 1st Circuit Court of Common Pleas must enforce the decision.
The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and The Episcopal Church asked the court last month to assist in returning the church properties held by the breakaway group to The Episcopal Church and to appoint a “special master” to oversee the transition.
According to a news release, the Diocese of South Carolina believes that the state Supreme Court’s decision is unenforceable because of its divided nature, saying the diocese “remains confident that the law and the facts of this case favor our congregations.”
The diocese did not rule out a second appearance before the state Supreme Court.
“While, obviously, we are disappointed that the court did not review this case, our hope remains steadfast in our Heavenly Father,” the Right Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, said in a statement. “There are many unresolved legal questions which remain before the state court.”
The breakaway group left the national Episcopal Church after the latter body tried to remove Lawrence as bishop. Disagreements about homosexuality and other “moral issues” also divided the church.