South Carolina Supreme Court justice Kaye Hearn is facing criticism for failing to recuse herself from a controversial religious freedom ruling issued by the Palmetto State’s high court earlier this month.
Hearn was one of the three Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of the liberal national Episcopal Church (TEC) – which sued a conservative diocese that broke away from its ranks five years ago.
Was she an impartial arbiter in this matter? No …
Should she have recused herself from hearing it? Absolutely …
Will it matter that she didn’t? Doubtful …
To recap: In late 2012, FITS broke the story of “rogue bishop” Mark Lawrence of Charleston, S.C. – an Episcopal priest who was booted from the national church for refusing to adopt its views on gay marriage and the ordination of gay and female clergy.
As a result of the church’s action against him, Lawrence announced his intention to disassociate South Carolina’s Lower Diocese from the national church – a threat he eventually made good on.
The national church wasn’t about to let its diocese go without a fight, though – accusing Lawrence and other leaders of the breakaway diocese of fraud, breach of fiduciary duty, trademark infringement and civil conspiracy, among other things.
According to the national church, the result of those alleged actions has been to “deprive Episcopalians loyal to the Episcopal Church of their property rights,” which they valued at anywhere between $500-$800 million.
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S.C. circuit court judge Dianne Goodstein rebuked these arguments and ruled in favor of the breakaway church, arguing that “for over 200 years, the Diocese has governed itself through votes of its parish churches and clergy meeting in conventions.”
“With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Goodstein wrote, adding “there is no basis to the claim that the Diocese did not validly exercise its legal and constitutionally protected right to disassociate from TEC in October 2012.”
We concur …
All decisions regarding religious affiliation should be left to individual congregations. Anything else is an imposition on religious liberty – especially when tithing parishioners subsidize church assets.
Unfortunately, the state’s Supreme Court didn’t see it this way. Well, to be precise the court as it was configured back in September 2015 (when this case was heard) didn’t see it this way.
Since this case was heard two justices – former chief justices Jean Toal and Costa Pleicones – have retired, while Hearn has now been accused of having a conflict of interest that should have prompted her to recuse herself from the matter.
“While she was definitely biased when the case was first appealed to the Court … that blight on her impartiality pales into insignificance before the blatant, result-oriented bias she has exposed in her opinion concurring in a 3-2 decision that would result in the transfer of multiple millions of dollars’ worth of real property,” A.S. Haley wrote for the website Anglican Ink.
According to Haley, Hearn “went out of her way to castigate Bishop Lawrence and the role he played as chief pastor of his Diocese – ecclesiastical matters which, as her colleagues pointed out, had no business being addressed in a secular judicial opinion.”
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We agree …
Why would Hearn inject herself so vehemently in this case? Because she was intimately associated with it prior to it arriving at the Supreme Court.
Specifically, Hearn was a member of an Episcopal group that brought disciplinary charges against Lawrence back in 2012, leading to the national church’s ruling against him. Additionally her husband, former state representative George Hearn, helped appoint Lawrence’s successor – who ultimately brought the suit against the “rogue bishop.”
The Hearns are also members of one of the congregations formed in the aftermath of Lawrence’s decision to leave the national church.
This website exposed Hearn’s conflict back in September of 2015, however we also noted that attorneys for the breakaway diocese failed to submit a motion arguing for Hearn’s recusal.
That failure has proven pivotal.
Nonetheless, we called on Hearn to recuse herself regardless.
“Doing so would be in accordance with judicial canons expressly forbidding judges from displaying bias or prejudice based upon their religious beliefs – not to mention bias or prejudice based upon a party in the case,” we wrote. “Both biases appear to be in abundant supply as it relates to this case.”
We understand passions are running hot regarding this particular ruling. And we understand there are those who dispute our contention that this is a religious liberty case – arguing instead that it is a property rights case. That’s a perfectly valid point … and we’ve extended an invitation to those who feel that way to make their case.
But whatever you think of this schism, Hearn’s bias is clear, compelling and should have kept her from rendering judgment in this matter.
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