Citing significant departures from both state and federal precedents, the Diocese of South Carolina and 29 parish churches filed a motion for rehearing on September 1 in the South Carolina Supreme Court regarding its recent ruling in Appellate Case No. 2015-000622. In 2012, the Diocese of South Carolina, along with 50 of its congregations voted to disassociate from The Episcopal Church. In a complicated and sharply divided ruling consisting of five separate opinions, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled on August 2 this year that parishes which had “acceded” to the national church’s “Dennis canon” are subject to a trust interest in their property by The Episcopal Church (TEC). Only eight congregations were judged to have full rights to retain their property.
In a decision that partly reversed the February 2015 Circuit Court ruling of Judge Diane Goodstein, the Supreme Court significantly changed court precedents in multiple areas and divested the property rights of at least 28 congregations and more than 20,000 church members.
Grounds for Rehearing
Although there are multiple legal issues in the ruling that merit rehearing, the most crucial are possibly the constitutional ones controlling cases of religious property. As stated in the conclusion to the petition: “The majority has fashioned a neutral principles standard for religious organizations under S.C. property, trust and corporate law that admittedly would not be applied to secular organizations. It then applied it to religious organizations today in a fashion it did not do eight years ago involving the same issues between the plaintiff diocese, TEC and a parish church. It does so when no appellant asked the trial court, either during trial or post trial, to apply such a standard. As a result, the majority would transfer the real and personal property of S.C. religious organizations, many of which preexisted TEC and the United States, to a New York religious organization.
This establishment of one religion over another impacts the choices these S.C. religious organizations (and those associated with them) made in the free exercise of their religion. They chose to disassociate, exercising their right of association under the U.S. and S.C. constitutions, which this court has recognized. Yet, according to the majority, that constitutionally protected decision, requires a massive transfer of centuries old real and personal property when it would not be required for a secular S.C. organization.”
The petition concluded: “These are serious issues for respondents, appellants and for all religious organizations in S.C. This court should grant a rehearing.”
The petition pointed out that the court’s ruling will severely disrupt the business lending and title insurance relationships of any religious organization that has a national affiliation.
Motion to recuse
Also, the diocese, the trustees and the same parish churches filed a motion to recuse Justice Kaye G. Hearn. It was signed by 26 S.C. attorneys of record in this case and was based on the expert affidavit testimony of Nathan M. Crystal, professor and adjunct professor of ethics at the University of South Carolina and NYU Schools of Law and Lawrence J. Fox, professor of ethics at Yale University.
Jim Lewis is canon to the ordinary of the Diocese of South Carolina.