Wednesday, September 23, 2009

S.C. Decision Could Have Far-Reaching Impact

From The Living Church-

The Supreme Court of South Carolina has resolved a long-running dispute between All Saints Church, Pawleys Island, and the Diocese of South Carolina. In a unanimous ruling written by Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal, the court said that the Episcopal Church's Dennis Canon does not apply to the congregation, which was founded before the Episcopal Church.

“It is an axiomatic principle of law that a person or entity must hold title to property in order to declare that it is held in trust for the benefit of another or transfer legal title to one person for the benefit of another,” the court ruled. “The diocese did not, at the time it recorded the 2000 notice, have any interest in the congregation's property.”

It is not yet clear whether the Episcopal Church will appeal the decision. “My understanding is that the legal team is currently reviewing the ruling,” said Neva Rae Fox, the Episcopal Church’s public affairs officer.

The dispute between All Saints and the diocese dates back to 2000, when the Rev. Chuck Murphy was consecrated as one of two founding bishops of the Anglican Mission in the Americas. The Rt. Rev. Edward L. Salmon, Jr., who was then the Bishop of South Carolina, was initially supportive of Bishop Murphy's consecration. But after the diocese filed a notice with the Georgetown County clerk of court saying that the congregation held the property in trust for the diocese, the congregation filed suit against both the diocese and the Episcopal Church.

Bishop Murphy hailed the ruling in a message sent to AMiA congregations.

“In addition to being a complete victory for all of us here at All Saints, Pawleys Island, it is a profoundly important legal decision repudiating the ‘authority’ of the Dennis Canon,” he wrote. “I believe that this will have enormous implications not only for the two Episcopal dioceses in South Carolina, but, I suspect, for other churches throughout the U.S.A.”

Attorney Dale Rye of Georgetown, Texas, wrote that he was troubled by the court’s ruling.

“It does not take a rocket scientist to see where the notion that congregations are necessarily independent entities can lead,” he wrote. “How is a diocese to enforce its disciplinary canons if a defrocked pastor’s parish simply chooses to ignore the decree? How is a bishop to enforce use of the authorized liturgy when the highest court in the state has stated that he is powerless to control a local congregation?”

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