Putting the South Carolina decision into perspective

Late last week the Supreme Court of South Carolina issued a ruling in the ongoing legal battle between the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and Bishop Chuck Murphy (of the Anglican Mission in America) and Vestry of All Saint’s, Pawley’s Island. The property dispute stems from the decision of then Rector Murphy and the Vestry to leave the Episcopal Church and become part of the AMiA (connected to the Anglican Province of Rwanda and now associate with the ACNA).

The Supreme Court ruled that the Dennis Canon, which says that diocesan and parish property are all held in trust for the Episcopal Church is not valid in this case.

There are a couple of reasons that this decision is unique. First, the parish in question, like a few others on the East Coast, predates the foundation of the Episcopal Church in 1789 so it has been argued that the Episcopal Church is more a creation of the parish than the parish of the Episcopal Church.

Second, the Supreme Court has decided to decide based primarily on neutral principles of law rather than by being guided by deference to denominations being allowed to create their own internal governance structures.

Dale Rye, commenting on this decision on Kendall Harmon’s Titus 1:9 blog writes of this choice:

“The problem with this is that the decision simply assumes (without considering the matter) that South Carolina can switch from being a ‘deference’ state to a ‘neutral principles’ state without thereby interfering with anybody’s established property rights.

As the opinion notes, until 13 years ago both the Episcopal Dioceses in South Carolina and all the parishes in the state were subject to the ‘deference’ principle, under which the congregations and members of a hierarchical church were assumed to have acceded to the authority of the denomination by virtue of having joined that denomination rather than one organized on a congregational basis. All these entities conducted their business with one another under the assumption that their respective legal interests (and the ecclesiological assumptions underlaying them) would not be abrogated by state action. Not only was South Carolina a ‘deference’ state until 1996, but its courts had insisted that this was the only constitutionally possible regime… which it arguably was until the US Supreme Court allowed the ‘neutral principles’ alternative in 1979. So, in 1987 when The Diocese of South Carolina expressly adopted the Dennis Canon, there was clearly established local law that gave General Convention and the Diocese the authority to make rules that were binding on local congregations.

[…]At the time the Diocese of South Carolina adopted the Dennis Canon in 1987, it had every expectation that it was binding on all the diocese’s congregations because that was actually the law at the time. It was not an effort to impose a trust from outside on a non-consenting independent corporation (as this decision holds), because South Carolina Episcopal parishes were not independent corporations in 1987. This judgment, in effect, holds that the adoption of “neutral principles” in 1996 divested the Diocese and National Church of their existing property interests without any compensation.”

Read the full comment here.

It does seem that the Supreme Court in South Carolina, in making this shift, has in effect established a particular congregational based polity within the state. Dale goes on in his analysis to describe the potentially large can of worms that making such a ruling based on the neutral principles of property law may be opening.

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