(RNS) The Episcopal Church lost a major court battle on Tuesday (Feb. 3) when a South Carolina judge ruled that the Diocese of South Carolina legally seceded from the denomination, and can retain control of $500 million in church property and assets.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church is one of Charleston’s most famous and historic churches, and part of a group of South Carolina parishes that seceded from the national Episcopal Church.
The Charleston-based Diocese of South Carolina voted to secede in 2012 after the national church accused its bishop, the Rt. Rev. Mark Lawrence, of abandoning the church and taking his diocese with him. The diocese said it helped form the national church in 1789, and was not legally bound to stay.
Lawrence insisted he and the 38 parishes that followed him out of the national church comprised the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina. The 30 parishes that remained part of the national church sued, asking a judge to determine who could legally claim the name “Episcopal” and who controlled the property.
On Tuesday, Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein ruled that the national church has “no provisions which state that a member diocese cannot voluntarily withdraw its membership.” The diocese was chartered in 1785, four years before the national church.
“With the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate,” Goodstein ruled.
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