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Episcopal Church wins federal trademark suit

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The Episcopal Church and The Episcopal Church of South Carolina have won a federal false advertising and trademark infringement lawsuit at the center of a series of disputes with a breakaway group.

The lawsuit, known as vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, was filed in 2013 after a group of several dozen Anglican parishes broke away from the national Episcopal Church as a result of the national church’s efforts to remove the Right Rev. Mark Lawrence as bishop and replace him with the Right Rev. Charles vonRosenberg. Disagreements about homosexuality and other “moral issues” also divided the church.

In 2017, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that properties held by the breakaway group must be returned to The Episcopal Church, but the court deferred the matter of trademarks to the federal court.

In his decision (.pdf), U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel said the state Supreme Court ruled that The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is the rightful successor to the original Anglican diocese in South Carolina, founded shortly before the U.S. Anglican church around 1785, and therefore is also its successor for legal and intellectual property purposes.

“Furthermore, this court independently holds that TECSC is the lawful successor of the historic diocese since this court is mandated to accept as binding the decision of the highest ecclesiastical body in a hierarchical religious organization. ... The issue of the leader of this historic diocese is therefore left to the determination of TEC,” Gergel wrote.

Gergel wrote that anything less than deferral to The Episcopal Church on the matter of the successor to the historic diocese “would ask this court to become involved with the question of who is the proper religious leader of a diocese, something that would necessitate impermissible entangling with a religious controversy.”

He added that by using marks owned by The Episcopal Church, the breakaway group was harming The Episcopal Church in South Carolina’s ability to operate as a religious organization and perpetuating confusion in the public about which group was associated with the national Episcopal Church.

The breakaway group was ordered to stop using the names Diocese of South Carolina, The Episcopal Church, The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and other related terms, as well as symbols such as the Episcopal shield and the Diocesan seal.

“The defendants have every right to dissociate from TEC and pursue their doctrine and community as they see fit, yet they may not leave with the plaintiffs’ goodwill and marks generated over the course of over two centuries,” Gergel wrote.

The breakaway group’s standing committee, which services as the diocese’s board of directors, unanimously voted to adopt the name The Anglican Diocese of South Carolina in response to the court decision, though the Anglican Diocese said in a news release that the order is likely to be appealed.

“We’re disappointed, of course,” said the Rev. Marcus Kaiser, rector of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Sumter and president of Anglican Diocese’s standing committee. “But changing our name doesn’t change who we are, or who we’ve ever been. It simply changes the name under which we operate.”

The Right Rev. Gladstone “Skip” Adams III, the current bishop of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, said in a news release that he was grateful to Gergel for his clear decision.

“While we are thankful, we know that this decision may be difficult for those from the disassociated diocese, and our hope remains that we can all find a path to true reconciliation and restoration of our diocese,” Adams said.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Diocese have been in mediation to resolve the S.C. Supreme Court’s 2017 property decision. After a full day of mediation last week, the mediator declared an impasse.

Reach Patrick Hoff at 843-849-3144.

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October 30, 2019

Wait, "rapidly dying Episcopal Church"? The Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina has grown far more since the departure of the followers of Lawrence. But I am grateful we agree...the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina is the rightful heirs to the name and trademark of centuries of ministry in lower South Carolina. Now to get the property back that was stolen from the Church...soon. Very, very soon!

October 05, 2019

As an Anglican who fled the Episcopal Church to remain Christian, I think this ruling is in the best interest of the churches that left. Now no one can possibly confuse the Christ-centered Biblical Anglicans and their churches with the stand for nothing constantly changing theology of the rapidly dying Episcopal Church.