CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - A South Carolina circuit court judge ruled Tuesday night the Diocese of South Carolina is the rightful owner of its property after leaving The Episcopal Church in 2012.
The 46-page decision from Judge Diane S. Goodstein states, "The plaintiffs are the owners of their real, personal and intellectual property."
The property has been valued at around $500 million.
The diocese says it split from the church back in 2012 after the church tried to remove its bishop.
In the judge's decision, she said the issue came down to whether or not the diocese left the Episcopal Church legally.
"The sole issue with respect to the diocese is corporate control. If the diocese legally withdrew from TEC then those currently in union with it control it," Goodstein writes.
She says there's no rule keeping them from leaving.
"In all of TEC's governing documents," the decision states, "no rule exists prohibiting the withdrawal of one of its member dioceses. No such rule could be constitutionally inferred."
She cites the decision of NAACP v. Alabama (1958) and says, "Freedom of association is a fundamental constitutional right." The decision continues, "There is no basis to claim that the Diocese did not validly exercise its legal and constitutionally protected right to disassociate from TEC in October 2012."
During the case, The Episcopal Church says it had an "express and constructive trust" with the Diocese, meaning TEC has a claim to the property, but Judge Goodstein disagreed.
She said an express trust is a consensual agreement. It must be created to help another person or party and not for personal benefit, and it also must be signed by the owner of the property, which she says did not happen.
The Diocese not only owns the land and building but also their names and symbols. She says, the use of "The Episcopal Church" name is legal because the word Episcopal predates The Episcopal Church as does "Protestant Episcopal Church".