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TEC Lawsuit Asks Federal Judge to Overturn State Court Order and Strip Diocese of SC of its Identity
Charleston, SC, March 13, 2013 – A new lawsuit filed by The Episcopal Church (TEC) asks a federal court to effectively nullify a South Carolina Circuit Court order by granting a splinter group, formerly associated with the Diocese of South Carolina, control over the Diocese’s identity and properties.
“The national church’s suit is an apparent effort to move a state property rights case to a court that might support the denomination’s seizure of local assets,” said the Rev. Jim Lewis, Canon to Bishop Lawrence. “It seems to be more focused on undermining the state court’s authority and prolonging the litigation than addressing the underlying issue.”
The suit asks a federal court to prohibit Bishop Lawrence from doing what a South Carolina judge has ordered that only he can do: use the diocese’s names and symbols.
The language used in TEC’s filings appears to ignore the temporary injunction issued on January 23 by South Carolina Circuit Judge Diane S. Goodstein – and agreed to by attorneys for TEC – blocking the denomination, its continuing parishes, individuals, organizations or any entity associated with it from, using, assuming or adopting the registered names and the seal or mark of The Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina.
In response to the Judge’s order, the TEC remnant group adopted the name of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina – which it did not use in last week’s federal court filings.
TEC’s federal lawsuit is very similar to one it filed in 2009 against the Diocese of Ft. Worth, Texas, after it disassociated from the denomination. When the federal judge realized the underlying issue of who controlled the diocese was being litigated in a state court, he stayed proceedings, pending the state court’s decision.
In the South Carolina Federal case, the suit specifically claims the Plaintiff represents the rightful Diocese of South Carolina and identifies Bishop Charles von Rosenberg as the rightful bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina. This issue is already a part of the state court case .
Busy week for TEC legal action
TEC’s suit was filed the same week that a Fresno, Calif., Superior Court judge tentatively ruled against a TEC motion for summary judgment in its lawsuit against the Diocese of San Joaquin, Calif. The court held that TEC failed to show that a diocese is prohibited from leaving the denomination as a matter of law.
TEC and attorneys for the San Joaquin Diocese will be able to make oral arguments on March 13, which could cause the court to change its ruling. If, however, the ruling stands, the issue can only be resolved by going to trial.
Currently, TEC is involved in lawsuits with four former dioceses, which all disassociated from the denomination. Only one legal case, involving a disassociated diocese in Pittsburgh, concluded in TEC’s favor because of agreements the diocese had entered into prior to disassociation.
TEC has filed approximately 80 lawsuits against parishes and dioceses that have disassociated from the denomination in recent years. The denomination, which has lost more than 17 percent of its members since 2000, has been aggressive in using the law to seize property from disassociated parishes, effectively using the threat of legal action to discourage further disassociation over theological reasons.
Recognizing that TEC has historically used the courts to seize local assets, the Diocese of South Carolina filed suit in South Carolina Circuit Court in January to prevent the denomination from hijacking local property. The suit asked the court to prevent TEC from infringing on the protected marks of the Diocese, including its seal and its historical names, and to prevent the church from assuming the Diocese’s identity, which was established before TEC’s creation. It also asked the court to protect the property of individual churches in the diocese.
The Diocese asked the court for protection when a few individuals and parishes remaining with TEC began identifying themselves as the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina after the Diocese had disassociated from TEC.
Locally, 46 of the Diocese’s original 71 parishes and missions have voted to support the Diocese; 19 support TEC and 6 remain undecided. The parishes and missions supporting the Diocese represent 80 percent of the Diocese’s 30,000 members.
The Episcopal Church and the remnant diocesan group, the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, have until April 4 to respond to the circuit court filings.
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