Thursday, April 19, 2018

More Rulings In South Carolina Episcopal Church Split

Earlier this week, a South Carolina federal district court issued another opinion in the long-running battle between competing Episcopal Church factions in South Carolina.  While the underlying dispute over which faction owns church property has been litigated in state court, a federal court suit was filed alleging a false advertising claim under the Lanham Act. Episcopal Bishop Charles von Rosenberg who heads the minority of congregations in South Carolina that remain loyal to The Episcopal Church sued Bishop Mark Lawrence who heads the larger portion of the congregations that in 2012 broke away from the national church. Von Rosenberg alleged that Lawrence engaged in false advertising by asserting that he remained the Bishop of the Diocese.  In vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, (D SC, April 16, 2018), the court allowed plaintiffs to add as defendants the Diocese, parishes and trustee corporation affiliated with Bishop Lawrence.

In a perhaps more interesting second part of the opinion, the court refused to allow the suit to be expanded to assert a novel breach of trust claim.  Last year, the South Carolina Supreme Court decided the property issue largely in favor of those who remained loyal to The Episcopal Church. (See prior posting.)  Plaintiffs sought to add a claim that "the parishes have breached their fiduciary duties by allowing property held in trust for TEC to be used 'in connection with a denomination' other than TEC."  They sought an order against 28 Parishes "to remove from their vestries any persons who cannot demonstrate to this Court's satisfaction that they are capable of and willing to carry out their fiduciary obligations to The Episcopal Church...."  The court held that it is not "free to use trust law entangle itself with religion like a fly in a spider web."  It continued:
Entry of a judicial order telling 28 congregations whom they may or may not elect to their respective parish vestries would foster excessive judicial entanglement with religion....
Of course, there are other ways for TEC to enforce its property rights. For example, TEC could take legal possession of the parish property held in trust for its benefit, rather than asking a federal court to supervise the local congregation's use the property. 
Charleston Regional Business Journal reports on the decision.