Courtroom interior_newWritten by Don Byrd

In a battle over competing arguments for church autonomy, a trial is underway in South Carolina to determine property rights concerning more than $500 million in church properties.

After a group of Episcopal congregations in the state broke away from the national church, they claimed the right to maintain ownership of their respective properties as the true Diocese of South Carolina. The Episcopal Church also claims rightful ownership of the valuable property. A judge will decide who is right.

The Post and Courier explains the arguments and the stakes involved:

Essentially, the local legal arguments come down to which trumps the other: national church law or state corporate law.

[Bishop Mark] Lawrence’s group argues the diocese is a South Carolina corporation, so issues should be settled by state law. The Episcopal Church argues that under the First Amendment, church issues should be settled by church law.

The Episcopal Church and vonRosenberg’s local diocese argue that the church is a hierarchical institution that controls its property. People can leave the church, but a geographic unit like a diocese cannot.

“This diocese, its name and its assets are things that belong to all of us together, as Episcopalians. We believe they were meant to be held and used for the benefit of the church, not taken out of the church and used to set up a new denomination,” Behre said.