Supreme Court declines to hear appeal of South Carolina churches that broke away from Episcopalian church

St. Michael's Episcopal Church and the Post Office in Charleston, South Carolina. | Wikimedia Commons/Brian Zinnel

The U.S. Supreme Court has refused to hear a case involving a group of churches seeking to keep $500 million worth of property in South Carolina after breaking away from the wider Episcopalian church.

In a petition filed in February, the breakaway group, which refers to itself as the Diocese of South Carolina, asked the high court to consider "whether the 'neutral principles of law' approach to resolving church property disputes requires courts to recognize a trust on church property even if the alleged trust does not comply with the state's ordinary trust and property law," according to Episcopal News Service.

The case was discussed by the justices at a conference on June 7, before it was rejected without comment on June 11.

The Diocese of South Carolina had decided to leave the Episcopalian Church due to disagreements about biblical authority, theology and inclusion of LGBT individuals in the church.

In 2013, the group filed a lawsuit in an effort to settle the dispute about ownership of 29 church properties.

A Dorchester County court ruled in favor of the Diocese of South Carolina in 2015, but the decision was overturned by the state Supreme Court in August last year.

The church properties, which were valued at around $500 million, include the St. Michael's Church and St. Philip's Church in downtown Charleston, as well as the Camp St. Christopher on Seabrook Island.

The 2017 decision had allowed seven breakaway churches to keep their property because they did not agree to the Episcopalian canon.

Diocesan Chancellor Thomas S. Tisdale Jr. noted that the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not automatically grant the Episcopalian Church the physical control of the diocesan properties. The ruling must still be enforced by the state court, he said.

The high court ruling has been hailed by Episcopal Church in South Carolina Bishop Provisional Gladstone B. Adams III.

"We are grateful for the clarity that this decision offers, and hopeful that it brings all of us closer to having real conversations on how we can bring healing and reconciliation to the church, the body of Christ, in this part of South Carolina," Adams said, as reported by Episcopal News Service.

"Our path continues to be one of reconciliation and love, for love is the way of Jesus," he went on to say.

The Diocese of South Carolina said that it will continue to pursue the case in courts. "The diocese remains confident that the law and the facts of this case favor our congregations," the group said in a statement, as reported by Episcopal News Service.