Judge: SC diocese, parishes that split with national Episcopal Church own $500M property

A South Carolina court has ruled that the national Episcopal Church has no claim on the property of the breakaway Diocese of South Carolina or its parish churches.

The conservative diocese in eastern South Carolina and more than half of its 70 congregations left the national church in 2012 amid differences over theological issues, among them the authority of Scripture and the ordination of gays.

The diocese then sued to protect its identity and $500 million in church property.

Judge Diane Goodstein, who presided at a three-week trial last year, ruled late Tuesday that the diocese and its parishes are "owners of their real, personal and intellectual property." The ruling says the Diocese of South Carolina and its parishes have the right to the diocesan name, symbols and a half-billion dollars in church property.

The diocese, dating to 1785, was one of the original dioceses that came together to form the Episcopal church.

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

Bishop Mark Lawrence of the Diocese of South Carolina said Wednesday that he was grateful for the ruling. "I hope we may all move on with our God-given dreams and our God-given mission," he told reporters.

But the diocese of parishes remaining with the national church plans to appeal.