A circuit court judge's ruling this week that a state church district of about 50 congregations would still have the right to compensation for improvements it made to parishes, even if it lost property ownership to a national church group, is a good …
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A circuit court judge's ruling this week that a state church district of about 50 congregations would still have the right to compensation for improvements it made to parishes, even if it lost property ownership to a national church group, is a good "Plan B option," according to a local priest.
The Rev. Marcus Kaiser, rector of Church of the Holy Comforter, 213 N. Main St., spoke Thursday about various scenarios that could play out in a back-and-forth legal case between the state diocese that his parish is part of and the national Episcopal Church.
The Diocese of South Carolina split from the national church group in 2012 because of theological concerns and is now part of The Anglican Church in North America.
Since 2013, the Episcopal Church has said that 28 parishes' property from the breakaway group in the state belong to it, pointing to an imposed trust from 1979. Two parishes in Sumter County - Church of the Holy Comforter and The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg - are part of the diocese in the legal battle.
On Tuesday, Judge Edgar Dickson of South Carolina's First Judicial Circuit denied the motion of the Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Church of South Carolina to dismiss a Betterments Statute claim filed by the diocese.
The statute provides that a party who makes good faith improvements to property they think they own may be compensated for the value of those improvements if a court makes a final determination that another party is the true owner.
Kaiser, who is president of the diocese's central representative body - or Standing Committee - that works alongside the bishop, said Betterments isn't what the diocese wants, but at least it's an alternative.
"It's a Plan B that we try to get something through the statute to the people who actually paid for and built these properties," Kaiser said, "so it's not just highway robbery here."
It would allow the church body to make immediate decisions going forward and discuss rebuilding right away, he said.
The church was founded in 1857, and the facility at the current downtown location dates back to the early 1900s, according to Kaiser. Its current average weekly attendance is about 180, he said.
The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg was founded in 1788, said its rector, Michael Ridgill, on Thursday, and its present facility was built in 1850. It's on the National Register of Historic Places, and its current attendance is about 45 people, he said.
Official appraisals would be necessary to determine the current value of all the diocese's parishes in question, the two rectors said, but the case has been referred to as a "$500 million lawsuit" by state media outlets.
Kaiser said the 2017 state Supreme Court ruling was "complex" with five separate opinions, but the diocese and congregations believe the individual parishes are the property owners.
The fact that the Church of the Holy Comforter and none of the other parishes agreed to the 1979 trust is a central issue, he said.
"If you look at our church's governing documents, you won't find any place where we said, 'Yes, we agree to this trust,'" Kaiser said. "And the same is true of every parish. So, the deed is in our name, and the fact is the good people of the Church of the Holy Comforter in Sumter - not outside of Sumter - were the ones who gave the money to build these facilities, they were the ones who have maintained them, and they continue to maintain them. Enough is enough. All we really ever wanted was to be left alone to be who we are and not have somebody come and try to change who we are."
Kaiser said the best option for the diocese is for the national group to drop the case. The next best solution, he said, is for the courts to uphold the deeds of the properties.
He added the whole legal tug-of-war has been a distraction to the church's mission to tell the world about Jesus Christ.
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