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Parish asks high court to review property dispute

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

A dispute over the property at All Saints Church raises constitutional issues that have “far-reaching implications” for churches across the country, according to a petition filed this month with the U.S. Supreme Court.

The vestry of All Saints Waccamaw Episcopal Church wants the court to review a 2009 decision by the state Supreme Court that ruled the property belongs to parishioners who broke with the Episcopal Church in the United States and joined the Anglican Mission in the Americas in 2004.

The Episcopal parish moved to new quarters, eventually establishing a new church on Highway 17. The Anglican Mission group continues to occupy the original church property on Kings River Road, which attorneys for the Episcopal parish say is worth $10 million.

The state Supreme Court overturned a Circuit Court ruling that the Episcopal parish owned the property. The high court said an Episcopal Church rule that says parishes own property in trust for the national church did not apply because the national church never held title to the All Saints property.

The parish argues that the church rule, known as the Dennis Canon, was created to protect the First Amendment right of “hierarchical churches” to protect their property from dissenting members. The South Carolina decision conflicts with decisions in other states, and the parish argues the Supreme Court needs to establish uniformity between states.

There are similar property disputes in other Episcopal congregations, but other denominations are also affected by the South Carolina ruling, the petitioners argue.

“The South Carolina Supreme Court’s decision therefore calls into question the status of billions of dollars of property that churches have attempted to safeguard from dissident parishioners through the Dennis Canon and similar trust provisions,” the petition states.

Despite the arguments in the petition, the issue remains a local matter for the Episcopal parish, said Rick Bruce, the senior warden of the Episcopal vestry. “People beyond here read a whole lot more into it than what’s going on here,” he said. “I don’t believe there’s an iota of theological difference between the two churches.”

A response to the petition is due next month. In the meantime, Bruce said there are “some very meaningful discussions” continuing between the All Saints groups.

While “disappointed” with the appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the move won’t change the willingness of the All Saints Anglicans to continue discussions, said the Rt. Rev. Terrell Glenn, rector of the Anglican church.

“Everybody wants it to be over,” he said. “Everybody wants there to be a reconciliation so there’s not a continued discomfort in the community.”

“We’re all hopeful there is a resolution somewhere in this that can bring glory to God and everybody back to focus on meaningful mission work,” Bruce said.

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