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District judge grants motions to expand federal Anglican lawsuit

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Among the properties that have been involved in the lawsuits are St. Michael’s Church (pictured) on Broad Street and St. Philip’s Church on Church Street. (Photo/Andy Owens)

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has granted motions to expand a federal false advertising and trademark infringement lawsuit between The Episcopal Church and the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, which broke away in 2012.

Gergel ordered (.pdf) that the lawsuit, known as vonRosenberg v. Lawrence (.pdf), be expanded to include the Diocese of South Carolina and all of the parishes that associate with it. The case is expected to go to trial in September.

The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina filed motions (.pdf) last month asking for the expansion of the lawsuit. The lawsuit had previously included the Right Rev. Charles vonRosenberg, former bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina; the Right Rev. Gladstone “Skip” Adams III, current bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina; The Episcopal Church; and the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence, bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina.

The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church in South Carolina also filed motions (.pdf) asking the federal court to help enforce the state court’s August decision that the Diocese of South Carolina must return church property to The Episcopal Church, asking that the court remove property trustees who cannot demonstrate that they are willing to carry out their responsibilities.

Gergel denied this motion, writing that “telling 28 congregations whom they may or may not elect to their respective parish vestries would foster excessive judicial entanglement with religion.”

The judge suggested that a better solution would be for The Episcopal Church to take legal possession of the parish property rather than ask the federal court to assist in management of the properties.

“And the better forum for enforcement of the South Carolina Supreme Court's decision concerning TEC’s real property rights is ... the Dorchester County Court of Common Pleas, where these issues have been litigated for over five years,” Gergel wrote.

The Diocese of South Carolina argued that Gergel should not consider any issue raised in their petition to the U.S. Supreme Court and that he should stay this matter until the Supreme Court makes a decision later this spring. Gergel wrote in his order that such argument is without merit.

“The judgment of the South Carolina Supreme Court is a final judgment and is the law of that case,” he wrote. “The losing parties’ decision to petition for a writ of certiorari does not place the South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision into abeyance.”

The Episcopal Church of South Carolina and The Episcopal Church are preparing their formal responses to the breakaway group’s petition with the Supreme Court, according to a news release. The deadline to file a response is April 30.

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