A S.C. Circuit Court judge ruled Tuesday that the Diocese of South Carolina that withdrew three years ago from the national Episcopal Church can keep more than $500 million in church property.
The parishes have been at the center of a dispute between the diocese and The Episcopal Church since Bishop Mark Lawrence broke away from the national church in 2012, taking 36 parishes with him.
They filed a lawsuit in 2013 that affected more than $500 million in physical property including some of the nation’s most historic and renowned church buildings, among them St. Michael’s and St. Philip’s in the heart of downtown Charleston. The 46-page opinion issued by Judge Diane S. Goodstein follows a three-week trial last summer.
The dispute, which is mirrored in other dioceses around the country, centers on interpretation of theology, including the national church’s willingness to approve the ordination of a gay bishop and the approval of a blessing rite for same sex couples.
Lawrence had earlier pushed for resolutions that gave the diocese, founded in 1785, sovereignty over the younger national church, a move that many saw as the first step toward a split with The Episcopal Church.
“This has never been about exclusion,” Lawrence said in a statement released after the ruling. “Our churches, our diocese are open to all. It’s about the freedom to practice and proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us. We’re ready to move forward and grateful for Judge Goodstein’s handling of the case.
A spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina said Tuesday night she had just received the order and was reviewing it. The Episcopal Church in South Carolina was formed from congregations who refused to exit the national church with Lawrence. It remains part of the Worldwide Anglican Communion.