By Kirk Petersen

The confusing saga of church property litigation in South Carolina grew even more confusing on June 19, as a state circuit court appears to have reversed what was thought to be the decision of the South Carolina Supreme Court, to which the circuit court is subservient.

Circuit Court Judge Edgar Dickson ruled almost entirely in favor of the parishes now affiliated with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), declaring that the parishes that voted to leave the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012 are the lawful owners of the buildings in which they worship.

In August 2017, the South Carolina Supreme Court issued five conflicting and overlapping decisions that collectively appeared to award ownership to the TEC-affiliated Diocese of South Carolina. That’s the way the decision was reported in TLC, as well as in the secular press. For example, the August 2 headline in The Post and Courier read: “State Supreme Court rules The Episcopal Church can reclaim 29 properties from breakaway parishes.”

The South Carolina Supreme Court decision was sent back to the circuit court for enforcement, and the parties have spent the past three years arguing motions to reverse or enforce that ruling. The United States Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the ACNA parishes.

Dickson’s 47-page ruling says the law “requires this Court to confront and determine the intent of the Supreme Court in the Collective Opinions. Any ambiguity must be resolved by this Court.” There was no shortage of ambiguity, as different parts of the case were decided — or appeared to have been decided — by different 3-2 majorities on the five-member Supreme Court.

He ruled that he was required to apply “neutral principles of law” (rather than deference to ecclesiastical authority) in assigning ownership, and said the ACNA parishes had never accepted the so-called Dennis Canon, which in 1979 established that Episcopal church buildings are held in trust by the diocese of which the church is a part.

“The Dennis Canon can have no effect until acceded to in writing by the individual parishes under South Carolina law,” Dickson wrote. “This Court finds that the Plaintiffs [the parishes] merely promised allegiance to TEC and without more, this promise cannot deprive them of their ownership rights in their property.”

A post on the website of the TEC Diocese of South Carolina says that Dickson, whose mandate was “to enforce the final judgment of the SCSC which ruled in August 2017 that the diocesan property and 29 parishes should be returned to the parties affiliated with The Episcopal Church, issued an Order earlier today that seems to be contrary to that decision. “This is not a final decision; it is yet another step on a long journey to full reconciliation within our Diocese,” said Diocesan Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale, Jr.

“We give thanks for this ruling,” said the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, bishop of the ACNA-affiliated Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, in a website posting. “It is a day to rejoice. It is a day to move forward in Christ’s mission to the world. Thanks be to God.”

In one bit of solace for the Episcopalians, Dickson agreed that the federal courts have jurisdiction over the question of which entity is allowed to call itself the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. In September 2019, a federal judge ruled that the trademark name belongs to TEC.

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