ST. GEORGE -- Three of four Episcopal churches in Beaufort County said they have joined a lawsuit filed Friday against the national Episcopal Church, a measure they say is necessary to protect their property from the national body.
A statement from the diocese said the lawsuit was filed in South Carolina Circuit Court. It also seeks to prevent The Episcopal Church from infringing on the protected marks of the Diocese, including its seal and its historical names.
"The Episcopal Church has every right to have a presence in the area served by our Diocese -- but it does not have a right to use our identity," the Rev. Jim Lewis said in a statement. "The Episcopal Church must create a new entity."
The Parish Church of St. Helena in downtown Beaufort, the Church of the Cross in Bluffton and St. Luke's Church on Hilton Head Island said they have joined the lawsuit, according to similarly worded statements released Friday.
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A secretary at All Saints Episcopal Church on Hilton Head Island said she knew nothing of the lawsuit. An attempt to reach rector Richard Lindsey for comment was unsuccessful.
Episcopal Church spokesman Neva Rae Fox said the church has not received the lawsuit and cannot comment.
The Diocese of South Carolina is made up of 71 parishes with about 30,000 members.
The Episcopal Church consecrated its first openly gay bishop in 2003, upsetting conservative Episcopalians. In 2006, the Diocese of South Carolina voted to reject the authority of the national church's presiding bishop but stopped short of a full break with the church.
The schism reached a critical point late last year. The church's national bishop issued a pastoral letter in October saying the Diocese of South Carolina can't leave the mother church of its own accord. The diocese then made its break, although 14 churches have decided not to follow the diocese away from the national church.
A disciplinary board said diocesan Bishop Mark Lawrence allowed language in the diocesan corporate charter last year to be changed, saying it would operate under the constitution and canons of the diocese, not the national church.
"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," Lawrence said. The national church's actions "make it clear that such freedom of worship is intolerable to them."
"Though our hope that the theological differences between the Diocese of South Carolina and The Episcopal Church would be resolved without recourse to the courts seems to have been in vain, we are mindful yet that it is never too late for a miracle," the Rev. Charles Owens, rector of the Church of the Cross, said in a prepared statement.
Attempts Friday to reach Owens for further comment were unsuccessful.
Attempts to reach representatives of the Parish Church of St. Helena also were unsuccessful, but its statement Friday noted that South Carolina state law has tended to support churches' property rights. A recent state Supreme Court decision found that All Saints Church of Pawley's Island was the rightful owner of its property and that The Episcopal Church held no interest, according to the Parish Church news release.
The Parish Church was founded in 1712, 73 years before the diocese to which it now belongs.
A statement from St. Luke's Church on Hilton Head Island said it, too, intends to protect its property from the national church.
"The land was granted to us by Sea Pines Development Company, and all of our buildings were paid for by our church family with no help from any outside source," Greg Kronz, rector of St. Luke's, said in the statement. "... Our church and a number of the parishes in our diocese, as well as our diocese itself, pre-dates the establishment of the Episcopal church."
An attempt to reach Kronz was unsuccessful.
The Associated Press and staff writer Brian Heffernan contributed to this report.