Dueling shepherds

vonRosenberg v. Lawrence, No. 14-1122 (4th Cir. Mar. 31, 2015).

Fourth Circuit appeal Episcopal Church

In recent years, theological tensions in the Episcopal Church have turned into outright conflict. Congregations and even a small number of dioceses have left the Episcopal Church and have affiliated themselves with Anglican churches in Africa and South America. This case arises from South Carolina, where the Episcopal diocese voted to secede from the Episcopal Church. In the aftermath of that vote, a miniature schism arose, with two bishops both viewing themselves as the rightful leader of the diocese. 

Those two bishops are the two parties to this lawsuit. Bishop Charles vonRosenberg is the bishop of Episcopal Church in South Carolina, which remains in communion with the Episcopal Church. Bishop Mark Lawrence heads the Episcopal Diocese in South Carolina, the organization that seceded from the Episcopal Church. Bishop vonRosenberg has sued Bishop Lawrence under the Lanham Act, alleging that Bishop Lawrence has violated the Lanham Act by continuing to use the South Carolina diocese’s service marks and by claiming that he’s the real bishop of the diocese.

This appeal, however, is not about the merits. It’s about whether the district court should have abstained from this case because a group of Bishop Lawrence’s supporters had filed a separate suit against the Episcopal Church in South Carolina state court—alleging claims that are similar to those alleged here, although they arise under state instead of federal law. The district court abstained, but the Fourth Circuit vacates that decision, holding that the lower court applied the wrong legal standard. It remands for the district court to consider the abstention issue under the Colorado River standard.