Does each Orthodox parish own its property?
Lawsuits are part of the Episcopal Church's holy tradition.
Breaking news: "Pot calls kettle black. Pot, meet kettle." We Orthodox have our own historical litany of litigation here in North America so I wouldn't gloat over the ECUSA's problems.
The interesting thing about the SC diocese case, is that the SC diocese last year formally acknowledged that each parish owns its property, making it hard (if not impossible, I guess) for the national church to claim SC diocese property.
From November, 2011:
The distance between The Episcopal Church and the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina widened last week when the diocese relinquished its legal oversight of all church property, sending what’s called a quitclaim deed to each parish.
The move merely formalizes an arrangement already in place, according to Bishop Mark Lawrence. “A quitclaim deed isn’t giving someone something they don’t have if they already own the deed,” he said.
That is a loaded question and a contentious one indeed and complicated. I suspect that in attempting to present a simplified answer I may make things more confusing, but I will give it a shot. In theory, the organizational and canonical structures as they apply to the status of real and personal property owned by hierarchical Christian Churches, both of the east and west, are similar among the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox traditions. All three traditions follow the ancient Christian mode of diocesan organization in which the local Bishop is entrusted by the larger church governing body with the title to property -real and personal - held for use by the diocese, including local parishes.
In each case the Bishop is the legal trustee, as the representative of a larger body. This would be a national church in the case of the Orthodox and the Anglicans and a global one in the case of the Romans. Local parishes should be incorporated with the diocesan bishop as the sole trustee and the parish is bound, part and parcel, to the diocese. The actual legal process differs from nation to nation and in the case of the USA from state to state.... HOWEVER.....
Reality often interferes with theory. In North America when the earliest Orthodox and Greek Catholic congregations settled here in the late 19th century, there were no state laws governing the establishment of an Orthodox Church or a Catholic church which was neither under the trusteeship of the local diocesan ordinary or a monastic order like the Franciscans or Jesuits. Hence many of the early Orthodox or Greek Catholic parishes were founded under the same laws governing self ruled Protestant communities on a local level similar to Congregationalists or even as fraternal religious organizations. This became a problem and led to much litigation, most of which was successfully defended by various Bishops and diocesan lawyers over the years.
Since the middle of the 20th century most parishes founded thereafter were incorporated with the consent of the Bishop and with a clear legal understanding that the property was not vested in the local congregation.
There was much litigation when parishes tried to leave Greek Catholicism for Orthodoxy or to switch from one Orthodox body to another - particularly during the Cold War. Much passion remains on the local level where these cases were litigated. (It's also why you will find five or six similar churches in any given Pennsylvania steel or coal town.)
However, it is pretty much settled law in the United States since the 1950's that the civil courts will absent themselves from asserting jurisdiction in disputes between a hierarchical body like an Orthodox or Roman diocese and a local congregation over interpretations of church law. I would casually call this the 'duck' rule - if it looks, quacks and swims like a duck - it's a duck. In other words, if a congregation has bound itself to the rules of the higher church body through practice - like accepting pastors, participating in diocesan councils or Sobors etc... it accepts all of the rules of the higher body and is bound by them, so ownership is sort of a moot point - you can't pick up your church and switch teams easily or close down and sell off the property for the benefit of the local parishioners..... (Not that it hasn't been tried from time to time.....)
This takes us to the South Carolina situation where the local Episcopal Bishop is obviously concerned that he will be removed by the National Church body - in anticipation of the same he signed off his 'title' through quit claim deeds - a dubious idea, but given some of the ways state courts in the south have tried to get around established case law to benefit the local Anglican parishes, it was worth a try. Some of the oldest parishes in the south do pre-date the organization of Anglican chartered dioceses in pre-revolutionary America so you can't make a general conclusion....
Now, just rambling along here - with the prospect of schism being mouthed by some in the OCA - one could imagine a situation similar to that developing where a diocesan OCA Bishop not yet removed by his Synod might try a similar end around play... I hope and pray that does not happen as I have lived through the decades of anger and misery such litigation leaves as its ugly residue.
This mess is going to put a lot of lawyers' kids through college and buy more than few summer homes on some coastal island from the legal fees which are going to be generated.