CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A breakaway group of Episcopal churches in South Carolina can retain its diocese name after leaving the U.S. Episcopal Church and keep historic church real estate worth $500 million, a judge has ruled.
The Diocese of South Carolina, which consists of dozens of parishes, broke away in 2012 after the larger organization moved to ordain gay clergy and bless same-sex marriages.
In a ruling on Tuesday, Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein said the diocese had the right to leave, and she rejected the Episcopal Church's argument that it had legal interest in the diocese's property.
The diocese owns real estate including historic properties such as St. Philip's Church, first built in 1681, and St. Michael's Church, built the following century, both in Charleston, according to court documents.
Thomas Tisdale, diocesan chancellor for the Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which includes 30 parishes and mission churches still affiliated with the national church, said the judge's decision was not unexpected and that his group will push for an appeal.
The breakaway diocese sued in January 2013 in an effort to prevent the national church and affiliated local parishes from seizing its valuable property.
Mark Lawrence, bishop of the breakaway Diocese of South Carolina, said it was ready to move on after getting the ruling in its favor.
"This has never been about exclusion," he said in a statement. "It’s about the freedom to practice and proclaim faith in Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us."
The Episcopal Church had about 1.8 million members in the United States as of 2013, according to church data. Several conservative congregations in other states have also split from the U.S. church and wound up in court over property disputes.
In the South Carolina case, a non-jury trial was held in rural St. George last year. Goodstein said she considered evidence that included testimony from 59 witnesses and more than 1,200 trial exhibits before issuing her written findings.
The diocese, formed in 1785, also left the national church during the Civil War to affiliate with the Confederate States of America, and then rejoined, Goodstein noted in her ruling.
In 1973, the diocese incorporated as an independent nonprofit, its spokeswoman Joy Hunter said.
Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Susan Heavey