The South Carolina Supreme Court has rejected a motion to rehear a controversial decision impacting religious liberty in the Palmetto State. Not only that, the court rebuked efforts to have deeply conflicted state Supreme Court justice Kaye Hearn removed from this case – which deals with the ongoing “Episcopal Schism.”
To recap: In late 2012, this news site broke the story of “rogue bishop” Mark Lawrence of Charleston, S.C. – an Episcopal priest who was booted from the liberal national Episcopal Church (TEC) 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.
The national church’s arguments didn’t hold sway … at least in the trial phase of these proceedings.
S.C. circuit court judge Diane Goodstein ruled in favor of the breakaway diocese, 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.”
Amen to that …
“All decisions regarding religious affiliation should be left to individual congregations,” we wrote last month in addressing this case. “Anything else is an imposition on religious liberty – especially when tithing parishioners subsidize church assets.”
Unfortunately, Goodstein’s decision was overturned by the Supreme Court – with Hearn casting the deciding vote.
Should she have been allowed to participate in this verdict? Let alone act as its ultimate arbiter?
No … and hell no.
As we’ve noted previously, 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.
The Hearns are also members of one of the congregations formed in the aftermath of Lawrence’s decision to leave the national church. In fact, she was a participant in this congregation’s worship the same week she ruled in this case.
Not only that, Hearn is alleged to have participated directly in meetings related to the “disagreements between the Episcopal Church and the Diocese.”
In one meeting, an incensed Hearn is alleged to have “stood up, and (thrown) a book on a table” during a dispute related to the schism – arguing that the “rule of law” was on the side of the liberal national church.
This news site exposed Hearn’s conflicts back in September of 2015 and subsequently called on her to recuse herself. However, we also noted at the time that attorneys for the breakaway diocese failed to submit a motion arguing for Hearn’s recusal. Apparently they believed her conflict of interest was so self-evident – and her recusal such a foregone conclusion – that filing such a motion was unnecessary.
That failure has proven pivotal …
Not surprisingly, supporters of the breakaway diocese were upset with the court’s refusal to vacate the ruling.
“We are deeply disappointed the Court did not see fit to recuse Justice Hearn,” reverend Jim Lewis of the Lower Diocese said in response to the ruling. “Her personal interest in the outcome of this litigation, beyond the normal matters of law, has clearly influenced its outcome. That is unfortunate not only for the Diocese but for all the citizens of this State with concerns for a fair and impartial judiciary.”
Indeed it is …
“We also find it disturbing that the weight of the Constitutional concerns raised was not given further opportunity to be addressed,” Lewis added. “Church property ownership in South Carolina is now gravely complicated.”
That’s true, too …
As former chief justice Jean Toal noted in her dissent in this case, Hearn’s ruling represents “nothing less than judicial sanction of the confiscation of church property.”
Toal added that Hearn’s opinion “advocates overruling a framework that has heretofore taken the courts out of ecclesiastical controversies, instead encouraging the Court to devolve to the civil court the authority to undo centuries of well-settled church titles by judicial fiat.”
Not surprisingly, the breakaway diocese is mulling its options in response to the court’s refusal to strike Hearn’s ruling and rehear the case. According to Lewis, the conservative church will “give serious consideration to seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.”
“We believe the number and character of the issues at stake in this ruling merit review by the high court,” Lewis said. “Because of the long road of litigation that has brought us to this day, all the parties to this case will need to take counsel together before deciding our next steps.”
This news site has consistently supported the breakaway diocese in its battle for religious freedom … and we support its leaders in their effort to move this case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“As we have stated from the beginning of this process, we believe individual congregations should be allowed to worship as they see fit – associating or disassociating with national denominations as they wish,” we wrote during the heat of the original trial.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
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