A lawsuit filed in federal court Tuesday by Episcopal Bishop Charles vonRosenberg asks a federal judge to declare he is the only bishop with authority to act in name of the Diocese of South Carolina.
“The intent of this suit is straightforward,” vonRosenberg said in a statement. “We are asking the court to determine who is authorized to serve as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina.”
The suit alleges trademark infringement and argues the diocese comprised of parishes remaining with the national church, of which he is the newly elected bishop, it the only entity with the right to use the name “The Diocese of South Carolina,” other diocesan names and the diocesan seal.
The lawsuit names as defendant Bishop Mark Lawrence, the bishop of the diocese in the eastern part of the state that broke away from the church last year in disputes over ordaining gays and other issues. When the diocese left, it had 70 congregations.
But 19 parishes and six worship groups are remaining in the national church and they elected vonRosenberg bishop at their own convention earlier this year.
Lawrence’s diocese and more than 30 parishes that left the national church have sued in state court over the use of the diocesan names and seal and to protect a half-billion dollars in property.
A state judge issued a temporary injunction in late January giving Lawrence the right to use the name “Diocese of South Carolina” and the seal. The diocese remaining with the national church has since been using the name “The Episcopal Church in South Carolina.”
The federal lawsuit alleges trademark infringement, claiming that since Lawrence renounced the Episcopal Church and his followers in the diocese followed him, his group is no longer associated with national church.
“Bishop Lawrence continues to use the diocese’s marks without the consent of Bishop vonRosenberg or the diocese. As a result, Bishop Lawrence falsely suggests to consumers of religious services and charitable donors that his activities are undertaken with the authority of the diocese and that he acts in accordance with the values of The Episcopal Church,” the complaint says.
The federal lawsuit seeks an injunction blocking Lawrence from using any of the diocesan names or the seal and asks for “an accounting of Bishop Lawrence’s profits obtained in connection with his false and misleading usage of the diocese’s marks as set forth in this complaint.”
A spokeswoman for Lawrence said he has not yet been served with the complaint and could not immediately comment.
In the state lawsuit, Lawrence and the parishes that left argue the national church has no right to either the identity of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina or its property and must create a new identity in the region.
Dating from the 1700s, the diocese in the eastern part of the state was one of the original dioceses that joined together to form the Episcopal Church. The 2 million-member Episcopal Church is the U.S. branch of the Anglican Communion, which has 77 million members worldwide.