The ability to gather freely and worship with those of common faith brought many of our ancestors to this land. Whatever our religious tradition, we recognize that this freedom has made the rich tapestry of religious diversity in South Carolina possible.
But this freedom is in such jeopardy that 100 leaders from across South Carolina’s religious community have come together to support the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina in its struggle with the national Episcopal church.
The divided decision on Aug. 2 by the S.C. Supreme Court would transfer nearly $500 million in church property from 54 congregations of the diocese, who created it for their ministries, to a New York association that contributed nothing to its development.
The 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the “free exercise of religion.” It also asserts that the government “shall make no establishment of religion.” This means it cannot favor one religious group over another or elevate non-religious over religious bodies.
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The court’s ruling violates these constitutional principles, creating a standard for property trusts that favors some organizations over others. The majority opinion suggests that an unincorporated association, merely by changing its bylaws, can claim the property of its members. It would be as if the U.S. Chamber of Commerce passed a rule claiming an interest in the property of every local chamber, with no explicit local agreement to that transfer of ownership.
There is no statute or common law in South Carolina supporting the validity of such a claim, yet that is what this ruling does. It asserts that there are different rules for religious versus non-religious entities. That is a disturbing precedent. As Justice John Kittredge observed in his dissent, “The message is clear for churches in South Carolina that are affiliated in any manner with a national organization and have never lifted a finger to transfer control or ownership of their property — if you think your property ownership is secure, think again.”
With freedom of association comes freedom to disassociate. Churches that freely associated with each other should be free to disassociate — and that disassociation should not cost them the very ministries that were established by local sacrifice. When the vast majority of parishes choose to disassociate (80 percent in this case) in keeping with state law and Supreme Court precedent, the courts should respect the decision.
There are also essential issues of fairness at stake in this case. A principle of the 14th Amendment is that no one in government should make decisions on matters in which they have a vested interest. In this ruling, the deciding vote was cast by a justice who belongs to a parish, diocese and national denomination that stand to gain tremendously from the outcome.
All South Carolinians, religious or not, have the reasonable expectation that the justice we receive in our courts will be fair and impartial. Even the appearance of bias is cause for concern. When bias is brought to bear on the basis of religious belief, the outcome is especially disturbing. If one religious group can be treated so today, there is good cause for concern others may fare no better in the future.
It is the responsibility of the courts to uphold the laws fairly and equally for all its citizens. That means the constitutional principles that have assured religious freedom in this country for more than 200 years must not be neglected. The Supreme Court has before it a request to rehear in this case. It is an opportunity to address these constitutional concerns and assure that all South Carolinians, whatever their religious tradition, may exercise their faith with confidence in their freedom under the law. It is my prayerful and confident expectation that this court will do all that is necessary, under the Constitution, to protect these freedoms.
Mr. Corcoran is director of coalitions at Palmetto Family Council; contact him at Erik@palmetto family.org.