The Diocese of South Carolina filed two motions on September 1 with the State Supreme Court, requesting a rehearing of our case and the recusal of the justice casting the deciding vote. Both are unusual steps and legal counsel for The Episcopal Church (TEC) has now responded to our motions. Because the issues at stake in this case have implications far beyond our Anglican family, they merit public comment.
Ownership of church property
The Diocese of South Carolina and its 54 congregations provide a place of worship for 23,000 faithful members across the Lowcountry of our state. Most of those congregations will lose their place of worship to TEC if the current ruling of the court stands as is. Many of those affected are colonial parishes like St. Philip’s and St. Michael’s whose existence predates TEC by more than 100 years. How can an unincorporated, New York association claim ownership here?
The majority in this case has made multiple legal assertions, among the most problematic of which is that a church body can lay claim to another’s property simply by saying it is so. The General Convention of TEC asserted such a unilateral claim in 1979. The problem with affirming such a claim in South Carolina is that it requires ignoring 300 years of clear legal precedent for how to establish an ownership interest in property.
The well-established legal principal is that the party granting anyone an interest in their property must do so in a clear, unambiguous written form. TEC failed to establish a trust interest in our property, of any sort, that can be recognized under existing S.C. legal precedent. To grant TEC such an interest now is to grant it favored status over the diocese and its parishes, establishing one church body over another. This is inconsistent with opinions of the U.S. Supreme Court that truly “neutral” principles of state law must be applied here as they would in any other case.
If you belong to any religious body, this ruling should concern you. It establishes the precedent that your property interests are not subject to the same rules as everyone else and you can be treated differently. In this particular case, it means any group you are associated with can make a legal claim to your property, simply because they say they have decided they have one. As Justice Kittredge noted in his dissenting opinion on this ruling, “The message is clear for churches in South Carolina that are affiliated in any manner with a national organization and have never lifted a finger to transfer control or ownership of their property — if you think your property ownership is secure, think again.”