Conservative former members of The Episcopal Church in South Carolina who say that control of the diocese is theirs have asked a court to declare that the national church has no right to the diocese's identity and property or that of its parishes.
The suit asks the South Carolina Circuit Court to protect marks of the diocese – such as its seal and its historical names - against infringement. It also asks the court for protection of parish and diocesan property, including church buildings and rectories worth over $500 million.
Plaintiffs are described in a news release as The Diocese of South Carolina, the Trustees of the Diocese and congregations representing the vast majority of its baptized members.
The Episcopal Church did not have an immediate reaction to the suit, saying it had not received documents related to it, a spokesperson told the Episcopal News Service.
"We believe The Episcopal Church's decision to embrace an unorthodox theology separated it from the doctrine our Diocese has followed for centuries, the same doctrine that nearly 80 million Anglicans around the world continue to follow today," wrote the Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence.
The Episcopal Church no longer recognizes Bishop Lawrence as having any authority to carry out his duties as a bishop, having declared it has accepted his "renunciation" after having declared in October 2012 that he abandoned the church. The Episcopal Church's Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori has scheduled a Jan. 26 meeting in Charleston, South Carolina to elect a provisional bishop.
The groups suing the church, say 22,244 members of approximately 30,000 in the diocese have remained members of the diocese, while 5,300 have decided to remain with The Episcopal Church.
At the Episcopal Church's General Convention in July, Bishop Lawrence and most of the delegation of the Diocese of South Carolina left the gathering before its conclusion in protest of the Church's decision to accept a temporary rite of blessing of same-sex couples and to accept full inclusion of transgender people in the life of the church, including ordination.
After The Episcopal Church formally declared Bishop Lawrence's abandonment, the Diocese said the move triggered a formal disaffiliation of it from the church. The church as said it does not recognize the move.
"This is an issue of religious freedom," Bishop Lawrence wrote. "Like our colonial forefathers, we are pursuing the freedom to practice our faith as we see fit, not as it is dictated to us by a self-proclaimed religious authority who threatens to take our property unless we relinquish our beliefs. The actions taken by TEC make it clear that such freedom of worship is intolerable to them."
"The underlying point is that the Diocese disassociated from TEC in October 2012, after TEC attempted to remove me as your bishop," wrote The Rt. Rev. Mark J. Lawrence, Bishop of the Diocese in a letter to members of the diocese. "The congregations, participating in the lawsuit, many of the Diocese's largest and oldest, join many others in disassociating from TEC."
The Episcopal Church maintains that Dioceses cannot leave the Episcopal Church and that while clergy and individuals may choose to leave, congregations and property remain in the diocese for use for the mission of the Episcopal Church, according to a fact sheet on the TEC's website.