What appeared to be a dispute over property quickly implicated First Amendment rights and the Establishment Clause, when the South Carolina Supreme Court applied different standards and rules to the Episcopal Church for establishing a trust in property than those governing secular organizations.
The court, in applying different and more lenient standards to the Episcopal Church, appeared to favor one denomination over another, according to Alan Runyan, an attorney representing the diocese.
“According to this decision, the Supreme Court of South Carolina has created a special rule which operates here to the benefit of the Episcopal Church, a New York unincorporated association, and to the punishment of the parish churches in the diocese of South Carolina, many of whom predate the Episcopal Church and the United States of America,” Runyan told TheDCNF. “Because, in the exercise of their protected rights to their religious beliefs and to associate with those they choose to associate with, they successfully withdrew from the Episcopal Church, only to have applied to them a rule that would not apply to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”
“And I say that because in South Carolina there are very precise ways for how you create a trust in property,” Runyan said. “In this case, the [South Carolina] Supreme Court majority expressly stated that, in fact, the Episcopal Church did not have to follow those rules. It didn’t have to follow the same rules that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would have to follow to create a trust interest in the property of a local chamber of commerce that had joined it. And it is in that respect that this is an egregious violation of the right to freedom of religion and the right to associate with others who share your religious beliefs because, in the exercise of those same rights, a secular organization would not have been punished.”
Lewis told TheDCNF that the implications of the court’s ruling, especially as they pertain to the Establishment Clause, posed a grave threat to the religious community at large.
“Part of our argument is that’s a gross violation of the First Amendment, that the court here has established a different set of rules, a different precedent for how church property ownership is determined than what would be used for a secular nonprofit,” Lewis said. “That’s essentially establishment of religion. There are all kinds of problems with that that should be of concern certainly to anybody in the religious community.”