In South Carolina, candidates for state judgeships are screened by a Judicial Merit Selection Commission before being sent to the General Assembly for election. Normally, this is a pro-forma affair with little said that raises an eyebrow.
That wasn’t the case on November 16, 2016. It was on that day the Commission interviewed those seeking a seat on the state’s second highest court, the South Carolina Court of Appeals. One of the candidates for that bench, attorney Blake Hewitt, was asked about what he considered the highlights of his legal career. This was his response in part:
“I am proud of the work I did in the Diocese of South Carolina case, the Episcopal Church case – which is still pending, and I may lose 5-0 — that was very challenging litigation.”
When a member of the panel was so dumbfounded at Hewitt’s response he asked the question a second time, Hewitt repeated the statement:
“I’m proud of the work I did in Episcopal Diocese case, regardless of how it comes out, because I got the opportunity to argue a really important case, a case with constitutional questions, which every lawyer gets excited about.”
That statement might not mean much if you don’t live in the 843 area code or aren’t Episcopalian. But the litigation Hewitt references may be the most significant fight for both orthodox Christianity and property rights South Carolina has seen. And Hewitt was on the wrong side.
Here’s the short version of the Episcopal Church story in South Carolina: the lower part of South Carolina (from roughly Orangeburg to the coast) in Anglican world is known as The Diocese of South Carolina. It is led by Bishop Mark Lawrence. As the national Episcopal Church (TEC) began to abandon the clear teachings of scripture on a number of matters, the Diocese separated from TEC in 2012. The liberal TEC then asserted its right to the $500 million in church property held by The Diocese of South Carolina or its parishes including the historic St. Philips Church and beautiful St. Christopher Camp. One problem for TEC’s legal case is the Diocese of South Carolina predates TEC. The Diocese was already existing when The Episcopal Church was established in America in 1789. A South Carolina Circuit Court agreed, ruling in favor of the Diocese of South Carolina in February, 2015. TEC appealed to the SC Supreme Court and a ruling from the high court is expected this year.
Our View: The word on the street is Blake Hewitt may be a fine appellate lawyer. But it is our sincere belief that placing an attorney on the bench who sided with the theologically liberal national Episcopal Church against the theologically conservative (Episcopal) Diocese of South Carolina in direct violation of the Diocese’s religious liberty rights and property rights is dangerous, particularly as religious freedom is frequently being contested in the courts.
Go Deeper: More on TEC’s Attempts to Seize Property from Theological Conservatives
Under uber liberal national Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Shori, TEC has been seizing property all over the country from conservative congregations who voted to leave TEC. The most famous case is the historic Falls Church in Falls Church, VA where George Washington was a member of the vestry. The conservative congregation voted to leave TEC and offered to buy the multimillion dollar property from the national church but was turned down. The parish lost the case and after 230 years, the congregation was forced out of their building.
Perhaps the worst example is from Binghamton, New York where the Church of the Good Shepherd was denied the right to purchase its building only to see TEC sell the building to a mosque.
TEC has filed at least 80 lawsuits seeking to take the property of individual parishes and dioceses that left TEC to the tune of $22 million in legal fees.