A group of 50 churches and 20,000 congregants are taking a huge hit – losing nearly $500 million of property after a South Carolina Supreme Court ruling on Thursday.
It comes after the churches, which form the South Carolina Diocese, broke away from The Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012 and officially joined the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) earlier this year.
The reason for the split? Mark Lawrence, bishop of the diocese, openly opposed TEC’s 2009 decision to allow gay ordination.
He came under fire from some in the Episcopal Church, who claimed he was, “abandoning the Episcopal Church and renouncing its rules,” according to Christianity Today.
In a 3-2 vote, the court decided that 29 of the parishes cannot keep their physical property – many of which are historic locations.
It’s a total 180 degree turn from an earlier court ruling in 2015. Then, Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein ruled they were in the right in keeping “all their property, including churches, symbols, and other assets.”
She maintained TEC had no rights to keep the breakaway churches’ “real, personal, and intellectual property.”
“In all of TEC’s governing documents, no rule exists prohibiting the withdrawal of one of its member dioceses,” she wrote in stating her opinion.
“With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Goodstein also wrote according to Moultrie News.
A similar situation took place in Illinois in 2014 when the state’s Supreme Court refused to hear TEC’s appeal after the Diocese of Quincy withdrew.
Why? They held TEC’s policy couldn’t stop a diocese from leaving.
The court under them, the Fourth District Court of Appeal, also sided with the diocese. They decided the diocese had the right to leave under the Constitution’s first amendment.
At least one person believes Thursday’s ruling reflects TEC’s priorities.
“Episcopal Church officials speak regularly about themes of reconciliation, but their actions in the courts indicate that property and exclusivity of their Anglican Communion franchise is paramount,” said Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) Program Director Jeff Walter in a statement. “…The Episcopal Church and its liberal Mainline Protestant counterparts refuse to accept what has become obvious: the majority of many congregations across the country do not want to depart their denominations, but will do so if liberal leadership continues down an unfaithful path,” he also said.
“Sadly, the Episcopal Church appears more interested in the recovery of property than in reconciliation,” he concluded.