SC: Split Episcopal parishes can't take millions in property

COLUMBIA, SC (AP/WCSC) - South Carolina's top court has ruled that dozens of parishes that split with The Episcopal Church over theological issues, including the ordination of gay priests, cannot take valuable property with them.

The state Supreme Court made that decision Wednesday for 29 breakaway parishes that left the national church in 2012.

A statement from Bishop Skip Adams with The Episcopal Church in South Carolina, following the ruling, reads in part:

"We are grateful for this decision and for the hard work of the court in rendering it. We also give thanks to God for the faithfulness, support, and sacrifices of countless Episcopalians within our diocese and throughout the Church."

"We do have legal counsel looking at what this determination actually means," said Reverend Jim Lewis, of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. "What we do understand so far is that we will definitely ask for a rehearing of this case. There are lots of good reasons for that. We don't believe this is the end of this matter by any stretch."

In a split decision, the court ruled eight other local churches can keep their properties. Those properties include St. Andrew's Land Trust in Mount Pleasant, St. Andrews in Mount Pleasant, Christ the King in Pawleys Island, St. Matthew's in Darlington, St. Paul's in Conway, Prince George Winyah in Georgetown, St. John's in Florence and St. Matthias in Summerton, which did not adopt the Dennis Canon.

The court ruled the churches which are subject to the "Dennis Canon" are part of the nationally affiliated diocese.

In 2012 the conservative Diocese of South Carolina went to court to protect its identity, the symbols it uses such as the diocesan seal and $500 million in church property. A circuit judge sided with the diocese in 2014.

On Wednesday, justices split 2-2 on intellectual property issues like trademarks. A fifth justice opted not to rule, leaving the lower court's ruling in place.

"I've always viewed the Episcopal Church as the viamedia, where we can all come together, and if you will, tolerate and theological expressions of faith," said Reverend Rob Dewey, with the Lowcountry Community Chaplaincy.

Dewey has worked in the Episcopal Church for more than 30 years. He says when the national church recognized same sex marriage is when things started to get tense.

"The major breakaway issue that I saw was because of the gay issue," he said.

It's unknown what exactly will happen to the properties of the breakaway congregations. One of the properties at stake is the popular Camp Saint Christopher on Seabrook Island.

"The roots in these congregations do go very deep and the sense of that being threatened is a very real phenomenon I think," Lewis said.

A statement from the Diocese reads in part:

"Lead counsel for the Diocese, Alan Runyan, said the lead opinion and concurring's decision is inconsistent with South Carolina and long-standing United States Supreme Court precedent involving church property disputes. Legal counsel continues to review a lengthy and complicated ruling comprised of five separate opinions."

Meanwhile, Episcopalians like Dewey, say they support Bishop Adams' statement on reconciliation and hope to resolve the issue in the future.

Attorneys on both sides of the long-awaited decision will continue to comb through the 77-page ruling.

Copyright 2017 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this story. All rights reserved.