Misapplication of neutral principles of law leads to constitutional conflicts and property rights confusion.
COLUMBIA, S.C. (November 13, 2017) – Friday, a diverse group of 106 South Carolina religious leaders, representing 52 cities and many denominations, filed an amicus curiae brief in the South Carolina Supreme Court supporting the Petition for Rehearing filed by the Diocese of South Carolina (Diocese) and 29 parish churches regarding the South Carolina Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Appellate Case No. 2015-000622. Among the amici are representatives of Baptist, Presbyterian, Christian, United Methodist, REC, Nazarene, Holiness and non-denominational churches, as well as the Executive Director of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. The amici are represented by attorneys with Winston & Strawn as well as Michael W. McConnell, who is the Richard and Frances Mallery Professor and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The brief addresses the Court’s misapplication of “neutral principles of law”, which presents both a serious threat to religious liberty and “leaves this state’s Church property law in disrepair and confusion.”
Statement by the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis:
“Friday’s brief illustrates well two essential problems with the current ruling of the Court. Because there is no legal consensus among the Justices, the ruling as it stands is, as stated in the brief, a “recipe for endless litigation.” As a consequence of misapplying neutral principles of law as intended by the U.S. Supreme Court, it violates rather than preserves, the First Amendment protections of religious liberty they are meant to ensure. Resolving these significant issues merits rehearing by the Court.”
The Diocese also provided the following list of additional details from Friday’s filed Brief:
- “For over 300 years, since before the Founding of this Nation, members of the Respondent’s congregations contributed land, money and labor in reliance on settled South Carolina law – only to have this Court divest them of their property based on a canon unilaterally adopted centuries later by a national denomination. This outcome was possible only because the Court fashioned a new rule of law solely for this case, and this denomination. But that rule of law departs from this court’s precedents and imposes special burdens on religious associations relative to secular ones. Those burdens violate the First Amendment.” [p. 1]
- “Amici believe strongly that churches freely associated with each other can also freely choose to disassociate. And the exercise of that freedom should not come at the price of the tools for ministry established by local sacrifice… ” [p. 4]
- “… the Court’s fractured decision leaves church property law in this state in utter confusion…. This confusion is a recipe for endless litigation.” [p. 2]
- The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Jones vs. Wolf established the use of neutral principles of law to settle church property disputes… “A court applying a neutral principles approach can only apply state law as it normally would; any other approach would be the opposite of neutral principles.” [p. 9]
- As the Court has done in this case, “Giving legal effect to trusts declared in denominational documents is not even mere deference. It is giving denominations power to rewrite civil property law.” [p. 14] and that is in violation of the free exercise of religion.
- “If that conception of “neutral principles” is correct, then no church can join a denomination without jeopardizing its property.” [p. 16]
- “Any denomination could pass a retroactive internal rule that would appropriate congregants gifts and church property.” … “Without secure property ownership, many rounds of future litigation are inevitable.” [p. 18]
- “If ownership no longer turns on publicly recorded deeds and trust instruments, but on the meaning of internal church rules and relationships, no one can know for certain who owns church property.” [p. 18]
- “Moreover, the Court’s ruling could eviscerate otherwise clear titles” and harm “the rights of insurers and lenders” all with “not a single justice agreeing as to exactly how State title and property law apply in this dispute.” [p. 19]
- A Statement from Senator Chip Campsen:
- A Statement from the Palmetto Family Council:
Dr. Gary Hollingsworth, Executive Director of the SC Baptist Convention and a passionate signatory of the brief, said: “One of the founding principles of our nation has been religious freedom and any threat to that freedom is an affront to every other freedom. We stand with our Anglican brethren in that same spirit.”
Pastor Jeremy Rivers of Body of Christ Overcomer Ministries Church said “Everyone has the right, as I see it, to represent Christ and spread the Gospel, and I stand with these churches because one day my freedom could be at stake. I have gladly signed my name to this brief.”
In part, the brief states, "'If ownership no longer turns on publicly recorded deeds and trust instruments, but on the meaning of internal church rules and relationships, no one can know for certain who owns church property."