Written by Don Byrd

The Diocese of South Carolina has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the state’s Supreme Court and return property awarded to the national Episcopal Church. The dispute, which centers around the Diocese having broken from the church and its congregations claiming ownership of their property, raises significant questions of how courts are to determine disputes between denominational groups. 

The Post and Courier reports on the competing views in the case:

“When a schism occurs within a religious denomination between a national church and an affiliated local diocese or congregation, secular courts must often determine which organization owns the property where the local church worships,” the filing states. “This Court has long held that courts may resolve these church property disputes the same way they resolve garden-variety property disputes between secular institutions or, for that matter, between a religious and a secular institution …”

The Episcopal Church, instead, has viewed the dispute through a constitutional lens, arguing that the church is a hierarchical institution governed by its own set of laws and rules, and that its autonomy and authority would be compromised should the disaffiliated diocese prevail.

Individuals are free to leave the church if they disagree with its theology or governance, Episcopal officials have repeatedly stated. But they are not free to take church property with them.

Over at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, Samuel Bray argues that the case “raises a fundamental question about how the First Amendment interacts with church property cases.” His post, which ultimately makes the case for ruling in favor of the Diocese and overturning the South Carolina Supreme Court, does a nice job of laying out the legal issues.