By Kirk Petersen
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously on April 20 that some but not all of the disputed properties currently occupied by entities associated with the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) belong, instead, to the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, affiliated with the Episcopal Church (TEC).
In a 36-page decision, the court ruled that 14 of 29 disputed parish properties must be turned over to TEC, while 15 others are rightfully owned by the congregations that inhabit them. The 314-acre St. Christopher Camp and Conference Center, currently operated by ACNA’s Anglican Diocese of South Carolina, was also ruled to be the property of the TEC diocese.
Both dioceses issued statements saying they are studying the decision to determine whether to take further action.
This was the second time the state Supreme Court considered the case. In 2017, the five members of the court each issued separate opinions that appeared to decide various parts of the case based on different 3-2 votes. That ruling was interpreted at the time as awarding the properties to TEC, while remanding enforcement to the trial court.
However, the lower circuit court ruled in 2020 that the higher court’s decision actually favored the ACNA-affiliated parishes.
“The current Court was given the unwelcomed task of interpreting the collective result of five separate opinions of the Justices of the 2017 Court — none of which gained a majority of votes — because a collective result could not be discerned from the opinions themselves,” the court wrote.
The ownership of the 29 parish properties hinged on the question of whether each parish had acceded to the so-called Dennis Canon, a provision enacted by the 1979 General Convention stating that local church properties are “held in trust for this Church and the Diocese thereof” in which the church is located.
The court’s ruling settled the question of accession by sorting the 29 churches into nine categories, based on parsing the language each church used years ago in affiliating itself with the Episcopal Church. Under South Carolina law, a trust exists only if the entities involved intend to create a trust.
The differences among some of the churches are subtle. For example, in its 2000 constitution, the Church of the Redeemer in Orangeburg said the church “shall conform to” the TEC canons. The court ruled that this did not constitute accession, because “The phrase ‘shall conform to’ is an agreement to comply with some future requirement” but does not indicate the church “had the present intent necessary to create a trust.”
Church of the Good Shepherd in Charleston, on the other hand, said in its 2006 constitution that it “adopts the bylaws and canons” of the Episcopal Church. In referring to Good Shepherd and eight other churches, the court wrote, “While none of these documents specifically mention the Dennis Canon, we find the language ‘adopt; or ‘accede to’ represents a sufficient affirmative present action—in light of the knowledge these Parishes had of the Dennis and Diocesan Canons,” to establish a trust.
“From our decision today, there will be no remand. The case is over,” the current Supreme Court wrote.
That may be true regarding the question of ownership, as the United States Supreme Court previously refused to hear an appeal. But litigation over a financial issue may well continue, because of another South Carolina law known as the Betterments statute.
That statute holds that South Carolinians who make improvements on a property in the good-faith belief that they own the property can seek compensation for those improvements in the event of a ruling that someone else is the legal owner.
The ACNA parties filed suit under the Betterments statute when the court appeared to favor the TEC diocese. That suit temporarily became moot once the lower court ruled in favor of the ACNA parties.
However, “the complaint asks that the court stay any proceedings on the merits of that claim until the issue of property ownership is finally decided,” according to a 2019 announcement by the ACNA diocese. If the courts rule that TEC “does have a trust interest in any parish property, then those parishes have claims against [TEC] for the value of the improvements made in good faith to those properties since they were created,” the announcement said.