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Episcopal Church files petition with Supreme Court over properties

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The Episcopal Church in South Carolina and The Episcopal Church have filed a petition with the S.C. Supreme Court (.pdf) requesting that the court enforce its August 2017 decision about 29 properties currently held by a breakaway group.

The S.C. Supreme Court ruled in August 2017 that the Protestant Episcopal Church in the Diocese of South Carolina, which broke away from the national Episcopal Church in 2012, must return the properties, which include St. Philip’s Church on Church Street and St. Michael’s Church on Broad Street.

That ruling, which reversed a 2015 circuit court decision, was written by all five justices, causing some opinions to be contradictory. 

A subsequent appeal by the diocese to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied. The Episcopal Church says that since the S.C. Supreme Court’s decision, Dorchester County Circuit Court has not taken action to ensure that the properties are transferred, even after a petition for enforcement was filed with the Circuit Court in May.

“The Circuit Court, on remittitur, has a duty to follow and enforce the mandate from this court’s final and dispositive decision,” the Episcopal Church said in its petition. “That duty is absolute and ministerial. … The Circuit Court has unduly delayed, now more than 10 months, in considering that petition for enforcement.”

At a November hearing, the Circuit Court heard a motion for clarification about the Supreme Court’s decision from the breakaway group.

“Usually when I get something remitted it’s clear what I’m supposed to do,” Judge Edgar Dickson said at that hearing. In this case, however, interpreting the Supreme Court ruling will entail “trying to ferret out what they meant.”

“I have to decide, and whatever is decided will be appealed by one side or the other,” Dickson said.

The Episcopal Church said the Circuit Court’s view of the decision and mandate does not alter its legal duty to enforce.

“This court considered the underlying case on appeal for more than two years before issuing its dispositive opinion,” the Episcopal Church said in its petition. “All five justices went to great lengths to explain their positions on the merits. Much can be said about the controversial issues involved in this dispute over church property, but the mandate of this court … cannot reasonably be said to be unclear and not final.”

The breakaway group left the national Episcopal Church in 2012 after it tried to remove the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence as bishop. Disagreements about homosexuality and other “moral issues” also divided the church.

The Episcopal Church and the breakaway group are also involved in a federal trademark and copyright lawsuit that is currently scheduled to go to trial in May.

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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