Tuesday, May 19, 2015


"That is why the Bishop Lawrence and his followers plotted this scheme. The Court should reverse." Thus ended the 51-page initial brief of the attorneys for the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (ECSC). It was filed with the state supreme court on May 15, 2015 as part of the Church's appeal of the circuit court decision rendered by Judge Goodstein on February 3, 2015. The brief is available online at http://www.episcopalchurchsc.org/news-release-may-18-2015.html . The independent side (DSC) has 30 days to file a response. A hearing has been set before all the justices of the South Carolina Supreme Court, in Columbia, on September 23, 2015 with no chance of delay. The court will consider action in regard to Goodstein's lower court order (Feb. 3).

What is the argument in this initial brief? What are the Church lawyers asking of the state's highest court? And, how strong is their case? What I am offering here is my layman's opinion. If you have a different take on this, let us know.

The overriding argument the lawyers make in this brief is that Goodstein used the wrong principle in judging this lawsuit (brought by DSC v. TEC and later TEC and ECSC). She should have used the "deference" standard instead of the "neutral principles" one she claimed to employ. The Church lawyers insisted this entire case arose from internal religious problems: doctrines and church governance. The issue of property was only the outcome of the disputes, not the origin of the differences. Since the schism stemmed from internal disputes, it must be treated as a "deference" case because courts are forbidden from interfering in the internal matters of a religious institution. This is based on the First Amendment's guarantee of the freedom of religion. On this alone, the lawyers want the court to overturn the Goodstein Order of Feb. 3. If so, that would be the end of the case, at least in the state of SC. If the court declared for the deference rule, the whole matter must be left up to the national Episcopal Church to settle. The civic state must "defer" to the religious institution. Therefore, the Church lawyers devoted the bulk of the space in the brief to describing the Episcopal Church as an hierarchical organization where dioceses are subject to bonds with the national Church. As one aspect of this, the lawyers emphasized the role of the Dennis Canon in this arrangement. This Canon held power over the diocese just as other parts of the Church's Constitution and Canons did, even by the diocese's own declaration.

If the state supreme court does not agree with the premise that Goodstein erred in following the wrong principle, the Church's lawyers' fall back position is to argue that Goodstein's decision should still be overturned because it is insubstantial, partial, erroneous, and even contradictory. She proclaimed neutral principles then proceeded to ignore them. She delved into church matters when it suited her and refused as she wished. In the end she made a sweeping judgment on the internal structure of the Episcopal Church by declaring it a congregational church (to the great bewilderment of informed people). 

The lawyers went on to argue that Goodstein made several other serious errors such as: she allowed state-registered trademarks to override federal ones thus upending the federal constitutional system; she recognized the revisions the Trustees Corporation made in their articles when they unilaterally, and illegally, declared the right to contravene the original articles of incorporation; she recognized the sovereignty of the local diocese in disregard of its longstanding, obligations to the national Church; and she recognized acts of the Bishop and of the diocesan conventions that were actually "ultra vires" (that is, beyond their legal rights). In sum, she made repeated, egregious misinterpretations of the civil laws of South Carolina.

Mixed in the text are several other important points that should not be overlooked. For instance, the lawyers tell us Goodstein's Order of Feb. 3 was in essence written by Lawrence's lawyers (p. 10). Only the lawyers and the judge know the contents of the sets of "orders," or requests for judgment that the two sides privately submitted to the judge in December 2014. According to this brief, Goodstein relied heavily on Alan Runyan et al in her decision.

In an historical perspective, the brief emphasized the premeditated nature of the secessionist movement in the old Diocese of South Carolina. For at least three years, there was a concerted and increasing movement to separate the diocese, the Trustees Corporation, and the local parishes from the Episcopal Church. The logical conclusion of this movement was to leave the Episcopal Church with the assets (land and money) in hand. They used the All Saints decision as the cover for the quit claim deeds. They transferred money into different bank accounts. They gradually cut ties to the national Church, in the end conspiring in secret to "disaffiliate" the diocese from the Episcopal Church.

Finally, the Church's lawyers argued that Goodstein's decision is so flawed that the justices might wish to disregard it altogether and make their own decision (de novo). 

In summary, it seems to me the Church lawyers are trying to get the state supreme court to cast aside this case on the grounds it requires "deference" to the national Church. On that, they have made the necessarily strong argument that the whole dispute between the two sides is a religious one. Their "Plan B" is to argue that Goodstein's decision itself is thoroughly erroneous and should be tossed out in favor of a whole new judgment made by the supreme court justices. On this, they have also made a good case. Moreover, they have a huge collection of laws and judicial decisions around the United States heavily weighted on the side of the Episcopal Church.