SC Supreme Court issues one more opinion on the Episcopal church controversy

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….despite the fact that the same Court declared “this case is over” in April

This is the fifth blog about the controversy surrounding the Episcopal Church and its properties in South Carolina. The subject of this post is the case the South Carolina Supreme Court decided on August 17* which follows an opinion in April** that declared definitively “this case is over”. It seems the Court found a reason to disagree with itself. And, once again, the Court declares that there will be no remand and that the case is over.

Church schisms are difficult in many ways, and the real estate issues are particularly thorny. This dispute began in 2010 when the Lower Diocese of South Carolina, after doctrinal disputes, dissociated from the National Episcopal Church. The parties have been involved in extensive litigation in state and federal courts for the years that have followed the dissociation. As dirt lawyers, we don’t have to figure out the doctrinal issues, but we do have to be concerned with the real estate issues.

As I said in April, my best advice to practicing real estate lawyers is to call your friendly and intelligent title insurance underwriter if you are asked to close any transaction involving Episcopal church property. In fact, call your underwriter when you deal with any church real estate transaction. They will stay current on the real estate issues involving churches.

The current controversy involves whether the parishes adopted the national church’s “Dennis Cannon”. This church law provides that all real and personal property owned by a parish is held in trust for the national church. The actions taken by each church with respect to the Dennis Cannon have been examined ad nauseum by our Court.

In April, the Court ruled that 14 of the 29 churches would be returned to the national body. The opinion re-filed in August ruled that six more churches are allowed to keep their properties. After this decision, 21 parishes will remain with the local entity and eight will be returned to the national entity.

Without belaboring the analysis, the following parishes will maintain their properties according to the April opinion. The statuses of these congregations do not change with the August opinion:

  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Pinopolis
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Philip, Charleston
  • The Protestant Episcopal Church of the Parish of Saint Michael, Charleston
  • Church of the Cross, inc. and Church of the Cross Declaration of Trust, Bluffton
  • The Church of the Epiphany, Eautawville
  • The Vestry and Church Warden of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. Helena, Beaufort
  • Christ St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Conway
  • The Church of the Resurrection, Surfside
  • The Church of St. Luke and St. Paul, Radcliffeboro
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Paul’s Church, Summerville
  • Trinity Episcopal Church, Edisto Island
  • St.Paul’s Episcopal Church of Bennettsville, Inc.
  • All Saints Protestant Episcopal Church, Inc. Florence
  • The Church of Our Savior of the Diocese of South Carolina, John’s Island
  • The Church of the Redeemer, Orangeburg

The following churches were ordered returned to the National Church by the April opinion but allowed to maintain their properties by the August opinion:

  • The Church of the Good Shepherd, Charleston
  • St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church, Hartsville
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of St. John, John’s Island
  • St. David’s Church, Cheraw
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Matthew, St. Matthews, Fort Motte
  • Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Charleston
  • Vestry and Church Wardens of the Episcopal Church of the Parish of Christ Church, Mount Pleasant
  • St. James Church, James Island

The properties of the following parishes are held in trust for the National Church, according to both opinions.

  • The Church of the Holy Comforter, Sumter
  • The Vestry and Church Wardens of St. Jude’s Church of Walterboro
  • Saint Luke’s Church, Hilton Head
  • The Vestries and Church Wardens of the Parish of St. Andrew (Old St. Andrew’s, Charleston)
  • The Church of the holy Cross, Spartanburg
  • Trinity Church of Myrtle Beach

We may see more church schism opinions in South Carolina and elsewhere. Stay in touch with your friendly title insurance company underwriter!

*The Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion No. 28095 (Re-filed August 17, 2022)

**The Episcopal church in the Diocese of South Carolina v. The Episcopal Church, South Carolina Supreme Court Opinion NO. 28095 (April 20, 2022).

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