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SOUTH CAROLINA: Judge remands Episcopal Church case

SOUTH CAROLINA: Judge remands Episcopal Church case

By Adam Parker
Feb. 22, 2017

The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has refused once again to hear a case accusing Bishop Mark Lawrence of false advertising, remanding it to the U.S. District Court in Charleston.

The suit alleges that Mark Lawrence is committing false advertising by continuing to represent himself as bishop of the Episcopal diocese.

The case has gone before the U.S. District Court in Charleston two times, and both times, Judge C. Weston Houck decided not to proceed with the case, preferring to wait until a separate state lawsuit is resolved that will clarify ownership of property and identities in the diocese.

That state suit now is stalled in the S.C. Supreme Court.

An opinion from Diana Gribbon Motz, head of a three-judge appeals court panel, stated that the state case and federal case are substantially different, and that resolving one will not adequately resolve the other.

Both cases involve the Diocese of South Carolina, led by Lawrence, and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina. The former, once part of The Episcopal Church, broke its ties in 2013 but retained the name, seal and property. The latter is the only recognized Episcopal diocese in the eastern half of South Carolina.


U.S. Court of Appeals Returns Case Accusing Bishop Mark Lawrence of False Advertising to District Court

District Court will proceed despite pending South Carolina

State Supreme Court ruling

CHARLESTON, SC (February 22, 2017) -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit granted the Episcopal Church (TEC) and its local subsidiary, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (TECSC) their appeal of a decision by the Honorable C. Weston Houck. Judge Houck issued a stay in September 2015 of Federal proceedings until the conclusion of state court litigation. Yesterday's ruling furthers the attempts by TEC to remove the litigation of a state property and identity issue into the Federal courts.

Bishop Charles G. vonRosenberg, who retired last summer as Bishop of TECSC, repeatedly alleged that the property and identity of the Diocese of South Carolina belongs to the Episcopal Church and was wrongfully taken. Bishop Mark Lawrence heads the Diocese of South Carolina which left TEC in 2012. In particular, the Federal case alleges that Bishop Lawrence is wrongly presenting himself as a Bishop of TEC which Bishop Lawrence says is a baseless accusation that continues to be used as a means to avoid the issues being addressed in the state courts.

Federal District Judge C. Weston Houck originally dismissed vonRosenberg's claim in 2013, recognizing that the essential issues of the Diocese's identity would be resolved by the South Carolina courts. February 2015, South Carolina Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein ruled the Diocese of South Carolina was, in fact, free to leave the denomination and keep its property and assets. TEC appealed that decision and the appeal was heard by the South Carolina Supreme Court on Sept. 23, 2015.

Meanwhile, TEC has repeatedly appealed Judge Houck's decisions to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The appellate panel initially ordered Judge Houck to reconsider his earlier dismissal of the case using a different legal standard for that decision. After consideration by that standard, Judge Houck ruled to delay any further hearings pending the outcome of a South Carolina Supreme Court decision. Judge Houck wrote, "Regardless of the [state Supreme Court's] ultimate decision, Bishop vonRosenberg's rights will necessarily be addressed and will be adequately protected in the state court action." He also referred to the Supreme Court hearing, as "the parallel state court action." Given Bishop vonRosenberg's retirement last summer, the validity of the complaint appears further suspect.

"Basically, the Judge was saying that if the Supreme Court upholds the current state court ruling the case will be dismissed," said the Rev. Jim Lewis, Canon to Bishop Lawrence.

Houck applied the Colorado River Abstention doctrine to conclude that the factors in this case presented the "exceptional circumstances" to warrant abstention. The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit has now disagreed, returning the matter to the Charleston Federal District Court for further hearings. In yesterday's ruling the court vacated Judge Houck's earlier ruling and remanded the case to the District Court for further proceedings. The Circuit court ruled that because the two bishops were not named parties in the state proceedings, the two cases were not strictly parallel and could proceed separately, though the Circuit court did state that resolution of the state case could resolve many of the issues in question in the Federal litigation.

About the Diocese of South Carolina

The Diocese was founded in 1785 by the parishes of the former South Carolina colony. Based in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, the Diocese is one of the oldest religious districts in the United States and counts among its members several of the oldest, operating churches in the nation.

The Diocese of South Carolina is recognized by Anglican Dioceses and Provinces around the world, many of whom have broken fellowship with The Episcopal Church. In 2013 the Diocese joined the global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans and entered into a formal relationship of Provisional Primatial Oversight with Global South Primates of the Anglican Communion.

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