By Harriet McLeod
CHARLESTON, S.C. (Reuters) - A breakaway group of Episcopal churches in South Carolina can retain its diocese name after leaving the U.S. Episcopal Church and keep historic church real estate worth $500 million, a judge has ruled.
The Diocese of South Carolina, which consists of dozens of parishes, was within its rights to leave the national church in 2012 after the larger organization moved to ordain gay clergy and bless same-sex marriages, Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein said in a ruling Tuesday evening.
The judge rejected the Episcopal Church's argument that it had legal interest in the Diocese of South Carolina's property because it was a hierarchical structure embracing the dioceses below it.
The diocese owns real estate including historic properties such as St. Philip's Church, first built in 1681, and St. Michael's Church, built the following century, both in Charleston, according to court documents.
The breakaway diocese sued in January 2013 in an effort to prevent the national church and 27 affiliated local parishes from seizing its valuable property.
A non-jury trial was held in rural St. George, South Carolina, last year. Goodstein said she considered evidence that included testimony from 59 witnesses and more than 1,200 trial exhibits before issuing her written findings.
The diocese, formed in 1785, also left the national church during the Civil War to affiliate with the Confederate States of America, and then rejoined, Goodstein noted in her ruling.
In 1973, the diocese incorporated as an independent nonprofit, its spokeswoman Joy Hunter said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Susan Heavey)