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Reverend v. Reverend: Court Must Hear Dispute in Episcopal Schism

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 02, 2015 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The District Court of South Carolina can't avoid hearing a dispute over who is the proper leader of the Protestant Episcopal Church in South Carolina, the Fourth Circuit held on Tuesday. The unusual case pitted two rival Bishops, the Reverend Mark J. Lawrence and the Reverend Charles G. vonRosenberg, against each other, with each claiming that they were the rightful leader of the church and thus entitled to use its trademarks.

The controversy, like all great religious disputes, stems from a schism in the Church. The conservative Diocese of South Carolina split from the more liberal Episcopal leadership over the national denomination's increasing acceptance of gay and lesbian church members. At stake are not just the souls of Southern Episcopalians, but also $500 million in church property and the right to Church trademarks.

Bishop Takes Knight -- and Trademarks

While the two church's disagreement over who owns the Episcopal property played out in state court, Bishop vonRosenberg, of the national Episcopalian organization, sued break-away Bishop Lawrence, alleging that Lawrence was violating the Church's trademark. The claims were similar to a second state lawsuit, brought by Lawrence's supporters in state court. Lawrence asked the district court to abstain while the state proceedings played out, and the court agreed.

However, such abstentions should only be granted in "exceptional" circumstances, the Fourth Circuit ruled on appeal. Under the Supreme Court's holding in Colorado River, federal courts may only abstain from deciding claims in favor of a parallel state suit rare circumstances, with a strong preference for exercising federal jurisdiction.

Two Churches, Two Suits

Just as the two may contentiously exist side by side, so two may the parallel state and federal trademark litigation. The Sixth Circuit highlighted the federal court's "virtually unflagging obligation" to resolve federal claims. In doing so, the court rejected the more discretionary standard applied by the district court. Where both declaratory and nondeclaratory relief are sought, the court held for the first time, the less discretionary standards of Colorado River must be applied to all mixed claims. Since vonRosenberg sought both forms of relief, the district court was not at liberty to abstain from entertaining his suit, even if this could lead to conflict with state court rulings.

What might qualify exceptional circumstances allowing abstention under Colorado River? The Sixth Circuit provided little guidance, instead remanding the case to the district court to see if any such circumstances existed here.

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