Federal Judge Maintains that Religious Disputes are a State Issue

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U.S. District Judge C. Weston Houck has reaffirmed his previous decision that jurisdiction over the Episcopal Church controversy in South Carolina lies in state court.

Bishop Charles vonRosenberg had filed a lawsuit in federal court, on behalf of the national Episcopal Church. His objective was to prevent the name, symbols, and official seal of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina from being used by Bishop Mark Lawrence, presiding official of churches that have split with the national Episcopal organization. But on August 23, 2013, Houck dismissed the lawsuit, finding that the legal claims “are more appropriately before, and will more comprehensively be resolved, in South Carolina state court.”

The schism at the heart of the controversy occurred last year, when conservative Episcopal parishes decided to withdraw from the national church because of doctrinal differences. The separation affected 49 churches who voted to break away, taking with them 80 percent of the Diocese‚Äôs total membership. Lawrence and the separated parishes subsequently filed a lawsuit in South Carolina state court to protect their title to $500 million of church assets and to secure the right to use the Episcopal Diocese’s seal and service marks.

Earlier this year, the state judge approved a consent order, mutually agreed to by both parties, that preliminarily authorized Lawrence and his group to utilize the seal and marks, including the official title “Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina”. But in U.S. District Court, vonRosenberg was attempting to revisit the same issue, accusing Lawrence of trademark infringement and false advertising with regard to those same diocesan symbols. Lawrence filed a motion to dismiss vonRosenberg’s federal lawsuit, claiming it would interfere with the ongoing litigation in state court.

Judge Houck agreed with Lawrence. In his order dismissing vonRosenberg’s federal complaint, the judge found it “judicially impractical to retain jurisdiction over a fragmented claim that has been separated from the larger controversy.” Citing the litigants’ “diametrically opposed concepts” and the need to clarify “competing constructs” pertaining to state law, Houck decided the case did not belong in a federal courtroom and accordingly dismissed it.

The dismissal was without prejudice, and vonRosenberg can renew his legal claims back in state court.

 

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