Friday, August 01, 2014

A.S. Haley: Making Sense of the Trial in South Carolina

July 31, 2014

In trying to make sense of the trial in South Carolina (which I did not attend, but know only from the reports of those who did), I noted certain pervasive themes.

First, the trial was a clash of diametrically opposed camps. Bishop Lawrence, his parishes and his Diocese were focused on going forward with their evangelical mission; the lawsuit was a drag on their ability to do so. Bishop vonRosenberg and his Episcopal Church (USA) were obsessed with looking back – to what they viewed as a hierarchical structure from the outset; to the prerogatives of national power that are concomitant to such a structure; and especially to the power wielded collectively by the House of Bishops, and by the Presiding Bishop in their absence.

Second, the trial was a clash of legal strategies dictated by the law of South Carolina. This case came to trial against the background of the South Carolina Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in All Saints Waccamaw Parish v. The Episcopal Church, a case I analyzed in this earlier post. The Court held two things: first, that a religious body who followed its own procedures, and South Carolina law, in amending its governing documents could not have those amendments declared void in the absence of superior church laws or rules forbidding such amendments, and which were in place before the dispute arose; and second, that the only kind of a religious trust that could have any effect under South Carolina law was one declared in a writing signed by the owner of the property being placed in trust – and not by the national church unilaterally, in its role as a putative beneficiary of any such trust.

Both holdings were premised on the declaration that South Carolina courts were to follow “neutral principles of law” in resolving church property disputes, and not by deferring automatically to determinations made internally by church bodies or personnel who were not the “highest judicatory bodies” in that church.

Given this backdrop, the strategy pursued by Bishop Lawrence and his attorneys was to emphasize the absence of any language of limitation or deference in the governing documents of either the diocese, or of its member parishes, and to show how they followed their own governing procedures in voting to leave the national Church. But the strategy pursued by ECUSA and its attorneys was designed to try to fool the trial court into thinking that this was not a dispute over property at all, but was instead a fight over opposing religious doctrines. (The First Amendment prohibits secular courts from getting involved in such disputes, and so ECUSA hoped that by painting the matter that way, the court would be forced to accept ECUSA’s designation of who were the true successors in interest to Bishop Lawrence’s diocese, once it voted to leave.)

To her great credit, Judge Goodstein refused to be baited into the trap which the defense steadfastly set for her with their objections, arguments, and proffered witnesses and testimony.  Time and again she emphasized that her hands were bound by the All Saints Waccamaw decision, and that she could proceed upon no other ground except that dictated by neutral principles of law – which is to say, the ground upon which each and every other kind of property dispute is resolved in South Carolina courts of law. The remarkable thing is that I see no possible advantage to the strategy pursued by the defense, whether on appeal in the state or federal courts. One cannot get around the Waccamaw decision; on can only confront it head-on. By failing to do so during the fourteen days of trial, ECUSA pretty well conceded its own case.

Third, the trial was a battle over image. ECUSA was fighting over its brand as the church of America’s wealthy and powerful elite, whose roots go back to before the Revolution; Bishop Lawrence’s diocese was fighting for its place in the traditions of Anglicanism – which equally go back to before the Revolution. For ECUSA, other Anglicans must simply get used to what it does, because it claims to be the only legitimately Anglican franchise in America; for +Lawrence and his Episcopal (“bishop-led”) Diocese, ECUSA’s brand of Anglicanism is no Anglicanism at all – one needs to distance oneself from it as fully as possible, by claiming solidarity with GAFCON and similar Anglican groups.

Fourth, the immediate stakes were the money and the property – but in the final analysis, the real issues were power and authority. Bishop Lawrence and his diocese confined their initial lawsuit just to a claim against ECUSA to quiet title to their property, and prevent infringement of their seal and trademarks... Excellent analysis-the rest here


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