CHARLESTON — U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck has ruled that the legal fight over names and property between two factions of South Carolina Episcopalians is a matter for state court.
Houck, who heard arguments last week and issued an order on Monday, ruled the First Amendment is not a main point of contention and that hearing the case in federal court would disrupt the balance between state and federal courts.
The conservative Diocese of South Carolina last year separated from the more liberal national Episcopal Church over a variety of theological issues including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays. The breakaway churches then sued in state court to protect the use of the diocesan name and a half billion dollars’ worth of property.
Parishes remaining with the national church then asked the case be heard in federal court, contending it raised First Amendment and other federal issues.
But Houck disagreed and sent the case back to state court.
He ruled while it has been argued the dispute over the diocesan name and seal falls under the federal Lanham Act trademark law, those matters can also be handled in state court.
The diocese that separated took those issues to state court and “it is well settled the plaintiffs may choose to assert only state law claims even when federal claims are available,” his order said.
Attorneys for the parishes staying with the national church also have said whether the split was lawful raises religious issues under the First Amendment.
But the issues in the state suit brought by the diocese that left “neither advance, nor require the resolution of an essential federal issue” Houck wrote.
“We are very pleased that Judge Houck remanded the case,” said Jim Lewis, the canon to the ordinary, or assistant, to Bishop Mark Lawrence of the diocese that left. “The issues involved are essentially those of legal identity and are wholly determined by state law, so the most appropriate place to settle is clearly in state court, where we first took the matter.”
Officials of the diocese earlier characterized the effort to move the case to federal court as an attempt to move a state property rights case to a court that will support the national denomination’s seizure of local assets.
The lawsuit now returns to Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein in Dorchester County.
“We are obviously disappointed with the result, but we are confident in our legal position going forward,” said Thomas Tisdale, an attorney who represents the diocese of churches remaining with the national Episcopal Church.