Justices deny bid from dissident South Carolina churches to keep buildings

(RNS) — The Episcopal Church in South Carolina is preparing to reclaim control of more than two dozen properties worth an estimated $500 million after the U.S. Supreme Court decided not to hear an appeal brought by a breakaway group of conservative Anglican congregations.

“We are grateful for the clarity that this decision offers, and hopeful that it brings all of us closer to having real conversations on how we can bring healing and reconciliation to the Church, the Body of Christ, in this part of South Carolina,” said the Rt. Rev. Gladstone B. “Skip” Adams III, bishop of the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, known as TECSC, in a statement.

In the same statement, TECSC Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale Jr. said there would be no “immediate change in the physical control of the properties” because of the Supreme Court denial. However, the South Carolina Episcopalians and the parent Episcopal Church body have asked the state court to place the properties and assets under TECSC control and transfer ownership to both groups.

A spokesperson for the breakaway group, which calls itself the Diocese of South Carolina, acknowledged that the congregations and their 22,000 members might need to leave the properties if the Episcopal Church in South Carolina won’t work with them.

“We are preparing for all eventualities, including moving our worship and ministries from buildings we have been in, in some cases for over 300 years,” said the Rev. Canon Jim Lewis, a spokesperson for the breakaway group, in an interview with Religion News Service. “If we must restart, replant congregations, we have plans in place for going about how we’ll do that.”

This latest development marks an important victory for the Episcopal Church. The denomination had initially lost in a lower court ruling that sided with the breakaway group, but a state high court decision overturned that ruling last year. Occupants of the 29 properties appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court decided not to get involved.

The multiyear battle traces to theological differences between the groups, which have divergent views on human sexuality and biblical interpretation. Differences intensified after the Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop, the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, in 2003. Since then, the Episcopal Church has gone on to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.

The litigation has been closely watched around the country for indications of how the courts would adjudicate competing claims to contested church properties. Some observers now wonder whether the Episcopal Church in South Carolina will try to use and maintain the properties or consider selling them to their current occupants and former legal foes.

“What does the Episcopal Church plan to do if and when it assumes control of these properties?” asked Jeff Walton, spokesperson for the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. “If they expel the (breakaway) congregations, it’ll be costly and a hollow victory.”

But working together after a long, bitter court fight could prove challenging. Calls to reconcile have not been accepted.

“What they really mean, when they use the word ‘reconciliation,’ translates to: ‘You completely surrender, give us back everything, and all returns to the way it was before, with us in charge,’” Lewis said. “That’s not something anyone in our diocese is interested in. We’re not interested in their definition of reconciliation.”

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