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Judge: S.C. diocese may have right to money for property upgrades

Legal case involves 28 parishes, including 2 in Sumter County

BY BRUCE MILLS
bruce@theitem.com
Posted 8/29/19

In a back-and-forth legal case, a state circuit court judge has ruled a state church district of about 50 congregations would still have the right to compensation for improvements it made to parishes through the years, even if it lost property …

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Judge: S.C. diocese may have right to money for property upgrades

Legal case involves 28 parishes, including 2 in Sumter County

Posted

In a back-and-forth legal case, a state circuit court judge has ruled a state church district of about 50 congregations would still have the right to make the claim for compensation for improvements it made to parishes through the years, even if it lost property ownership to a national church group.

Late 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 a former breakaway group, the Diocese of South Carolina, according to a diocese news release.

And compensation for those improvements could be "substantial," according to a diocese official.

The diocese, or state church district, split from the national Episcopal Church in 2012 because of theological concerns and is now part of The Anglican Church in North America.

"The Betterments Statute makes this possible: If you improve it - thinking you owned it - and it turns out somebody else does, they have to in some fashion compensate you for those improvements," said Jim Lewis, Canon to the Bishop of the diocese on Wednesday.

The congregations have always thought they owned their properties and associated buildings - some dating back more than 200 years - and no money ever came from the Episcopal Church, officials said.

However, since 2013, the Episcopal Church has pointed to a trust interest it passed in 1979 over its parishes. Until 2017, courts in South Carolina ruled the trust wasn't a legal trust.

A total of 28 parishes, including two in Sumter County, have been involved in the diocese's legal battle over their right to properties with the national church. The two Sumter parishes are Church of the Holy Comforter, 213 N. Main St., and The Church of the Holy Cross in Stateburg.

After the U.S. Supreme Court denied a diocese petition for a hearing last year, the case is now back at the circuit court where it originated, Lewis said.

The statute describes the process for payback for improvements, but Lewis said he wasn't sure on the process.

He said the judge's ruling this week is definitely a "win" for the breakaway diocese, if it lost control of the parishes.

"From our perspective, it would mean, if we lost control of the property because of this trust interest, then The Episcopal Church doesn't get all this property for free," Lewis said. "They will have to pay for it in some fashion."

Currently, Dickson of the circuit court has the responsibility of interpreting a 2017 state Supreme Court 3-2 ruling with five different opinions in it.

"That never happened before," Lewis said.

After Dickson's determination in circuit court, it's highly likely the case will go back to the state Supreme Court, Lewis said, for it to either affirm or correct his ruling.