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Final Resolution Reached in South Carolina Episcopal Case

Final Resolution Reached in South Carolina Episcopal Case

By Jeffrey Walton
April 21, 2022

Episcopalians and departing Anglicans in South Carolina have received final word in a mixed ruling that concludes the last major church property dispute in the North American Anglican realignment.

Fifteen Anglican parishes, including the historic St. Michael's Church and St. Philip's Church in Charleston, will retain title to their properties, while 14 parishes will be required to turn over their church properties to Episcopalians, including the Camp St. Christopher Conference Center and Old St. Andrew's Church in Charleston, the oldest surviving church building in South Carolina.

The ruling from the South Carolina Supreme Court follows nearly a decade of litigation in which the parties disputed ownership of more than $500 million worth of church properties. The case, which originally involved 36 parishes, took several twists and was repeatedly appealed.

"From our decision today, there will be no remand," the five justices wrote. "The case is over."

Today's Supreme Court opinion came after an appeal of Judge Edgar W. Dickson's interpretation of the high court's 2017 five separately issued opinions, affirming in part and reversing in part that interpretation. At a December 2021 hearing, Episcopal Church attorneys argued that Dickson had effectively overturned a 2017 Supreme Court ruling, while attorneys for the Anglican diocese and parishes argued that there was no majority ruling and that Dickson correctly followed instructions to review the governing documents of each parish.

Full text of the 36-page court opinion can be viewed by clicking here.

Leadership of both the Episcopal and Anglican dioceses were reserved in their official statements, mindful that some within their flocks would be elated while others devastated at the news.

"I call on each of you to join me in prayer for all of the beloved people of this diocese and all who have been affected by the Court's decisions today," wrote Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina Bishop Ruth Woodliff-Stanley in a pastoral statement. "We are still working to understand the immediate path forward and promise to be in communication with you as our legal team helps us determine what comes next."

"The ruling raises many issues that will have to play out in the coming weeks before any actions are taken, so our first response must be to quiet our hearts before the Lord as we pray for grace to meet the days ahead," wrote Anglican Diocese of South Carolina Bishop Chip Edgar in a pastoral letter addressed to diocesan clergy and laity. A brief news item on the diocesan website stated that legal counsel for the diocese was reviewing the ruling "to assess its implications and appropriate responses."

In previous cases where church property has changed hands, a special master has sometimes been designated by a court to oversee the division of assets.

Justices wrote that their opinion centered upon whether the 2017 Court (in its five separate opinions) made a final decision as to all real property owned by the parishes.

"We hold it did not," the justices wrote, proceeding to review the merits of the circuit court's 2020 Parish by Parish determination as to which entity owns the disputed property.

"As to some Parishes, we hold the circuit court correctly ruled the individual Parish retained ownership of its property. As to other Parishes, we hold those Parishes created an irrevocable trust in favor of the National Church and its diocese, now the Associated Diocese. As to the Parishes that created a trust, we direct that appropriate documentation be filed in the public record indicating the National Church and the Associated Diocese now own that real estate," the opinion read.

A separate federal case regarding the ownership of diocesan trademarks and seal is ongoing and was not addressed in the state-level property ruling.

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