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(RNS) A South Carolina parish that split from the Episcopal Church in 2004 can keep its church property, the state’s Supreme Court has ruled, handing a rare legal victory to conservative dissidents.
A majority of members of All Saints Church at Pawley’s Island voted to secede from the Episcopal Church five years ago, after an openly gay man was consecrated bishop of New Hampshire.
The Episcopal Church maintains that congregations hold their property in trust for the denomination; if they decide to leave, the property stays with the diocese and the national church, Episcopal leaders argue.
Applying “neutral principles,” South Carolina’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday (Sept. 18) that All Saints, which dates to the early 18th century, had secured ownership to the property in 1902, well before the Episcopal Church instituted its trust rules in 1979.
In 2004, a majority of All Saints members voted to remove references to the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of South Carolina and explicitly “severed any legal relationship with those organizations,” wrote the state’s Supreme Court. The parish is now part of the Anglican Mission in the Americas, which is affiliated with the Episcopal Church of Rwanda.
“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,” the court said in its ruling. The diocese did not have any legal interest in the congregation’s property at the time legal documents were filed with civil authorities, the court decided.
Other state courts, including those in New York, California and Colorado, have sided with the Episcopal Church in recent decisions over property rights.
Still, courts seem to be moving away from a deferential approach to church property disputes, meaning they do not always defer to internal church rules, said Robert Tuttle, a church-state expert at the George Washington University Law School.
“At the macro level, that’s the shift,” he said. “Because courts just don’t like the idea of having to ignore the specific claims of the parties, and saying `if you’re part of this church, that’s the story.”‘
By Daniel Burke
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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