CHARLESTON — Attorneys for two factions of South Carolina Episcopalians made their case Thursday to a federal judge over the proper venue for their legal battle — state or federal court.
In a courtroom jammed with more than two dozen attorneys, U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck heard arguments arising from the Episcopal schism in eastern South Carolina.
Last year, the conservative Diocese of South Carolina separated from the more liberal national Episcopal Church over a variety of theological issues, among them gay marriage and the consecration of homosexual bishops.
It then sued in state court seeking to protect the use of its name and a half billion dollars’ worth of property controlled by its parishes. State Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein later issued an injunction saying only the parishes that left the denomination may use the name the Diocese of South Carolina.
When the diocese left, it had 70 congregations with nearly 29,000 parishioners. Some two dozen parishes and worship groups remaining in the national church formed a new diocese and had the lawsuit moved to federal court.
Officials of the diocese that separated have characterized the maneuver as an attempt to move a state property rights case to a court that will support the national denomination’s seizure of local assets.
Attorneys for the diocese asked Houck on Thursday to move the case back into state court.
“Under federal law, there is no basis for federal jurisdiction,” attorney Alan Runyon said. He said property issues and the use of the diocesan name can be resolved under state law and don’t raise any constitutional issues.
He argued that under the South Carolina Nonprofit Corporation Act, a nonprofit’s membership in a large group is voluntary, and it can end the association if it wants. “That doesn’t change because they are religious organizations,” he said.
But Matthew McGill, representing the diocese of parishes remaining with the national church, said the case concerns the First Amendment protections of freedom of religion.
“This is not merely a dispute over church property,” he said. “There is so much more at stake here. This case concerns whether a diocese has the right to withdraw” from the national church.
The case, he said, involves the authority of courts and the freedom of churches “to organize themselves in the manner they see fit. It goes to the very foundation of how churches organize themselves in this country.”
Houck said he would weigh the arguments and issue a written order, perhaps in a week.