CHARLESTON, SC — U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck has ruled for the second time in recent months that legal issues arising from the Episcopal schism in eastern South Carolina belong in state court, not federal court.
Houck dismissed a federal lawsuit late Friday brought by Bishop Charles vonRosenberg, the bishop of parishes remaining with the national Episcopal Church.
The bishop had asked Houck to block Bishop Mark Lawrence, the spiritual head of churches that left the national church, from using the name and symbols of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.
But Houck ruled the issues “are more appropriately before, and will more comprehensively be resolved, in South Carolina state court.”
Lawrence and churches in the conservative diocese separated from the more liberal national church last year. Those parishes later sued in state court to protect their use of the diocesan name and symbols and title to a half billion dollars in church property.
In a consent order agreed to by both sides and signed by a state judge earlier this year, Lawrence and those parishes were given the right to use the name and symbols.
Parishes remaining with the national church later tried to move that case to federal court, but Houck ruled in June that doing so would disrupt the balance between state and federal courts.
Earlier this month, he heard arguments on vonRosenberg's suit alleging Lawrence's use of the name and symbols violates federal trademark law. Attorneys also argued vonRosenberg is not a defendant in the state suit.
But “though Bishop vonRosenberg is not a named party in the state action, the right he possesses with regard to control of the diocese's property and his office are already at stake in the state action,” Houck ruled.
Houck ruled the state has a strong interest in resolving the matter because the disputed symbols are registered with the Secretary of State. He added that hearing the case in state court is more efficient and that involving the federal courts would “constitute unnecessary entanglement” of issues.
“While we are disappointed at the recent legal developments, we recognized that our journey involves many, many more steps than only this one,” vonRosenberg said in a statement. Attorneys are considering whether to appeal Houck's ruling. The state case is not expected to go to trial before next year.