By Kirk Petersen
The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, which has been locked in litigation for nearly eight years with what is now known as the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, on November 12 asked the state Supreme Court to settle the matter once and for all.
The high court might be forgiven for believing it already settled the matter three years ago.
At stake is ownership of property worth an estimated $500 million, consisting of 29 churches and related buildings, as well as the 314-acre St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center. The churches contain congregations where priests left the Episcopal Church (TEC) in 2012 over theological differences and ultimately settled in what is now the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA).
In August 2017, the state Supreme Court overruled a circuit court decision and awarded ownership of the property to the TEC-affiliated diocese. The decision was a confusing welter of five opinions by the five justices, with different parts of the case decided by different 3-2 majorities. Still, three justices voted to reverse the lower court’s order and agreed that the 29 congregations must turn over to the TEC-affiliated diocese the buildings that they occupied.
The United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which in the meantime had been sent back to a different circuit court judge, Edgar Dickson, for implementation.
Three years passed, sparsely filled with motions, counter-motions and hearings, while no property changed hands.
In June 2020, Judge Dickson issued an order that effectively reversed the result of the higher court, and awarded ownership of the properties to the ACNA-affiliated diocese and churches. In a 35-page brief filed on November 12, TEC and its affiliated diocese asked the state Supreme Court to reverse Dickson’s order and enforce its own August 2017 decision.
The TEC parties were highly critical of Judge Dickson in the brief, saying “he undertook to ‘construe’ the Supreme Court Ruling ‘to determine intent while disregarding superfluous language’.” They accused the judge of “interpreting the intent of the Supreme Court Ruling based upon his effort to ‘distill,’ ‘harmonize,’ and ‘find common ground’ among the justices’ separate opinions — including the dissenting opinions.”
One complication is that two of the 2017 justices have left the high court – including the justice who wrote the lead opinion. The TEC filing accused the ACNA parties of stalling for three years “to get this case in front of a differently constituted Supreme Court with the hope of a different, favorable result.”
“The fact that the Court issued multiple opinions in deciding the case in no way dilutes the result – and that result is conclusive,” the brief said. “Fundamental principles of judicial review precluded the Circuit Court, and indeed preclude this [Supreme] Court, from reviewing that result. Were it otherwise, litigation in any particular case would never cease.”
So when will this case cease?
The Rev. Jim Lewis, canon to the ordinary of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, declined to comment on the TEC brief, beyond saying that they have 30 days to file a reply brief.
Molly Hamilton, director of communications for the Episcopal diocese, said the diocese would have an opportunity to respond to the ACNA filing. “After that, at some point, the South Carolina Supreme Court would schedule a hearing with all parties. … According to our Chancellor, while we cannot predict timing, finality in 2021 is probable.”