South Carolina congregations will keep fighting for $500 million in property, despite Supreme Court rejection
By Bob Smietana
Conservative Anglicans who broke away from the Episcopal Church say they won’t stop fighting to keep their buildings—even though the U.S. Supreme Court won’t hear their case.
The nation’s highest court rejected an appeal from the South Carolina Anglicans on Monday. It’s the latest twist in a fight over $500 million in church property.
“The Diocese remains confident that the law and the facts of this case favor our congregations,” said the Diocese of South Carolina in a statement. “We plan to continue to press both to their logical conclusion, even if that requires a second appearance before the South Carolina Supreme Court.”
The legal dispute began in 2012, when Mark Lawrence, bishop of the Diocese of South Carolina, and most of the churches in the diocese decided to split from the Episcopal Church.
They wanted to keep their buildings and a church campground—properties worth about $500 million, according to the Charleston Post and Courier. They filed a lawsuit in 2013, claiming ownership of the properties.
Lawrence and leaders of those churches believe themselves to remain as the official diocese of South Carolina. But they no longer wanted to be part of the denomination.
The national church and seven Episcopal churches that didn’t want to leave sued. They argued—citing a national rule—that the property belonged to the denomination.
A lower court ruled in favor of the breakaway churches. But the state Supreme Court reversed that decision, saying 29 of the properties belonged to the denomination.
In their appeal, the breakaway churches said the state courts gave too much deference to Episcopal Church rules, “running afoul of First Amendment religious freedoms,” the Post and Courier reported.
“The parishes said the long-running battle’s resolution should instead hinge on ‘neutral principles of law’—the strict provisions of state property law that do not favor a particular group.”
The Supreme Court move leaves a dilemma. There aren’t enough Episcopalians left to fill—or to pay for the upkeep of—the buildings, which are still occupied by the breakaway congregations.
Both groups head back to a state court, which is charged with overseeing the transfer of the buildings.
Skip Adams, who was appointed as the new Episcopal bishop in South Carolina and remains tied to the denomination, said he’s open to meeting with leaders of the churches that left.
“We are grateful for the clarity that this decision offers and hopeful that it brings all of us closer to having real conversations on how we can bring healing and reconciliation,” he said in a statement. “Our path continues to be one of reconciliation and love.”
For their part, the breakaway churches plan to keep fighting in state court.
“While, obviously, we are disappointed that the Court did not review this case, our hope remains steadfast in our Heavenly Father,” Lawrence said in a statement. “There are many unresolved legal questions which remain before the State Court as well as matters for prayerful discernment as we seek to carry out the mission to which we are called in Jesus Christ. We shall seek his guidance for both.”
Experts in church property law had hoped the U.S. Supreme Court would take the South Carolina case and a similar case in Minnesota.
Dan Dalton, a Detroit-based attorney who specializes in church property cases, says there are conflicting rulings in state courts over how to handle disputes over church property.
“It was very disappointing that the Court did not take this opportunity to clear up the law on this important issue,” he said in an email. “We now have 16 different decisions on points of law that are all related.”
In deciding property disputes, courts can defer to a denomination’s rules—following a religious freedom principle known as ecclesiastical abstention, established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1870s— or they can use purely secular rules of state law to decide ownership, said Howard Friedman, a retired law professor who runs the “Religion Clause” blog. “These are the only two permissible choices—the court may not consider religious doctrine to decide.”
Many of the property disputes center on what’s known as the denominational trust clause. In some denominations, local churches hold buildings in trust for the larger church body. If a congregation wants to leave the denomination, it leaves the building behind.
But courts don’t always treat those clauses as binding.
In Minnesota, a state court ruled that Prairie Community Church of the Twin Cities can keep its property. Formerly known as Eden Prairie Presbyterian Church (EPPC), that congregation split off from the Presbyterian Church (USA).
The denomination claimed it owned the building—citing a trust clause.
A Minnesota state court disagreed.
The court noted that the trust rule didn’t exist when the church joined the Presbyterian Church (USA). The church did eventually add the trust rule to its bylaws—but reserved the right to change those bylaws.
Then in 2010, the church voted to take the trust language out of its bylaws.
“Because EPPC followed Minnesota law when exercising its power to revoke the trust, and because EPPC unambiguously retained the authority to revoke the trust, it was within its rights when it amended its articles to remove all references to the trust,” the court ruled. “Accordingly, the trust was properly revoked.”
Dalton said it’s now unclear whether courts will uphold the trust clause. If a church tries to split from a denomination, it’s not clear what will happen to the building, he said.
In an email, Dalton shared some observations from the two rulings.
According to Dalton:
- “The enforceability of a denominational trust clause is state-specific. The state will look at the state trust law, state corporate law, and the interplay of the First Amendment free exercise clause, as interpreted by the state court, to make a decision as to who owns the property.”
- “Before leaving a denomination, a local church must take steps to prepare itself to leave. This involves an intense review and perhaps amendment of corporate documents and property deeds.”
- “The sure way of a local church losing its property is announcing that it is leaving the denomination and then trying to change its governance materials.”
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BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer at Facts & Trends.