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Day in court: State Supreme Court to hear legal issues in Episcopal split in eastern SC


CHARLESTON, South Carolina — South Carolina's highest court this week hears arguments in the legal fight stemming from the acrimonious split in the Episcopal Church in eastern South Carolina.

The conservative Diocese of South Carolina, dating to 1785 and one of the original dioceses that joined to form the Episcopal Church, left the national church in 2012 amid differences over theological issues, including the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays.

The diocese then sued to protect its identity, the symbols it uses such as the diocesan seal and $500 million in church property.

Parishes in the region that didn't leave the national church are in a diocese now known as The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.

Circuit Judge Diane Goodstein, who presided at a three-week trial in Dorchester County in 2014, ruled earlier this year in favor of the diocese that left in a decision that said the diocese owns its name, symbols and property.

The judge ruled that while freedom of association is a fundamental right, "with the freedom to associate goes its corollary, the freedom to disassociate."

The national Episcopal Church and the almost 40 congregations now comprising The Episcopal Church in South Carolina are appealing Goodstein's decision to the Supreme Court. The justices have scheduled arguments in Columbia for Wednesday.

"People are entitled to choose their own religious beliefs and affiliate with whomever they choose," attorneys for The Episcopal Church in South Carolina said in documents filed in their appeal.

"These dissidents are dissatisfied with the Episcopal Church's doctrine and its authority and nobody resents them for that dissatisfaction," the filing said. "But they cannot band together, co-opt parts of the Episcopal Church itself and seek to turn those parts of the church into something different."

The Diocese of South Carolina which left is asking the justices to affirm Goodstein's decision.

A posting on the diocesan website says "it is our prayerful hope that the state Supreme Court justices will uphold this decision in its entirety." It also includes a prayer asking God to "protect this Diocese and its parishes" adding "teach us to bless and never curse those on the other side of this conflict."

In July, The Episcopal Church in South Carolina offered a settlement to resolve the dispute.

Under the offer, which was not accepted, the church said it would allow parishes that left to keep their individual church property whether or not they remain part of The Episcopal Church. In exchange, the proposal asked that diocesan property, which includes the oceanfront Camp St. Christopher retreat center on Seabrook Island, as well as the symbols and name be returned.

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