The South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled against the conservative Diocese of South Carolina.
The situation appears grim for thousands of conservative Anglicans in South Carolina. After a long legal battle with the liberal ECUSA denomination headquartered in New York, the South Carolina Supreme Court has ruled against the conservative Diocese of South Carolina. This could result in thousands of South Carolinians being displaced from their places of worship. To make matters worse, the deciding vote was cast by a justice who failed to recuse herself despite a strong connection to one of the parties in the case.
Since the early 2000s, leaders in the Episcopal Church in the United States (ECUSA) have issued statements denying the centrality of Christ and the trust-worthiness of Scripture and marginalized leaders who held to traditional beliefs regarding God’s design in gender and sexuality issues, sparking a major controversy among its affiliating members. The controversy set off a shift (known as the Anglican Realignment) of churches that decided to remain loyal to biblical values.
As a result, several dioceses belonging to the Episcopal Church in the United States severed their ties with the Church, deciding to instead seek more conservative oversight elsewhere. In 2012, the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, under the leadership of Bishop Mark Lawrence, left the ECUSA, and aligned itself with the Anglican Church in North America in order to carry out the church’s mission:
“[T]o respond to the Great Commission by so presenting Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit that all may come to know him as Savior and follow Him as Lord in the fellowship of His Church.”
The Legal Matters
As one might expect, the Episcopal Church in the United States has not taken kindly to the departure of the dioceses. In response, the Church has taken to court several of the conservative breakaways over property ownership. Having won several of these cases, the Episcopal Church is strong-arming dioceses to either remain silent in the face of and accept their liberal values or hand over their property.
In the process of leaving the Episcopal Church in the United States because of their unbiblical stances, the Diocese of South Carolina (which interestingly pre-dates the national ECUSA) claimed ownership of its assets, and a suit was filed to “protect the Diocese’s real and personal property and that of its parishes.” At every step in the legal battle, the courts ruled that indeed the property and identity belonged to the local Diocese, not to the liberal national church or its rump South Carolina affiliate, the ECSC. However, everything changed when the matter reached the South Carolina Supreme Court.
On August 2nd, the High Court ruled, in a sharply divided 2 to 3 opinion, that the property belonging to 29 congregations in the Diocese of South Carolina must be turned over to the denomination the Diocese voted by an 80% margin to leave! Disappointing indeed, but what makes the decision truly egregious are the actions of Justice Kaye Hearn.
Justice Hearn and her husband have been involved members in the new diocese (ECSC) which is in league with the very denomination seeking to gain control of the property – the Episcopal Church in the United States. Instead of recusing herself from the case, Justice Hearn voted essentially to send the property to a body to which her church belongs. As the following analysis from AS Haley explains, many are understandably unhappy with her decision:
“One would think that Justice Hearn, given her membership in the organization that initiated the disciplinary proceedings against Bishop Lawrence, and given her husband’s role in enabling the litigation now before her, might have considered recusing herself from the 2015 appeal by her own diocese (ECSC) and church (ECUSA) to her Court, which placed directly at issue the actions of Bishop Lawrence and his Diocese that removed them from ECUSA. But one would be wrong. She not only stayed on the case, but she displayed a disgraceful bias in her own church’s favor during the oral arguments in September 2015.”
Why It Matters
Unfortunately, this case is not an isolated example of injustice, judicial abuse or denominational in-fighting. No, the consequences are far reaching and could become precedent for future religious freedom and property cases brought forth by any denomination or congregation. There are both immediate and future consequences.
First, nearly 23,000 conservative, bible-believing members of the Diocese of South Carolina and its 54 congregations could lose their place of worship and ministry. These buildings have been built through the contributions of those members. These many thousands will now be forced to find new places to worship and to serve their community.
Second, the decision has direct implications for others with denominational affiliations. In his dissenting opinion, Justice Kittredge observes that:
“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.”
Third, the Supreme Court’s decision has significant, negative implications for the capacity of any congregation to pursue financing for future growth and development, having overturned 300 years of common law precedent for property trust interest.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the decision violates the trust South Carolinians place in the justices elected to the most powerful court in the Palmetto State. By her actions, Justice Hearn calls into question the reliability of the South Carolina Supreme Court to render fair and impartial decisions. All South Carolinians should be deeply concerned that justice is not blind on their High Court and therefore cannot be trusted to enforce justice in a fashion above reproach.
How to Help
As noted above, this case has far reaching consequences beyond those affiliated with the Episcopal Church or the Anglican Church. Several foundational blocks upholding our society are being attacked – religious freedom, freedom of association and property rights. So no matter your Christian brand, denomination or affiliation, thousands of our Christian brothers and sisters need our help right now! Bishop Mark Lawrence lays out why every Christian can get behind their battle:
“Orthodox, faithful, godly, biblical Anglicans are standing together. This is really a stand for the authority of scripture and for the uniqueness of Christ. My heart is with all those brothers and sisters who live under the lordship of Jesus Christ.”
The next step for the Diocese of South Carolina is to formally request a rehearing, which will come sometime in the next week. In the meantime, we invite every Christian in South Carolina to take action on the issue.
Click here or on the graphic below to contact your legislators and ask them to use their influence to demand that Justice Hearn recuse herself from further involvement in this case and for the Court to grant a rehearing.
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