South Carolina Episcopalians take fight to court

ST. GEORGE, S.C. (AP/WCIV) - About 50 conservative Episcopal churches in South Carolina that left the national denomination over the ordination of gays and other issues are suing, saying they should be able to leave without losing their property.

The national church wants the group, which calls itself the Diocese of South Carolina, to return $500 million in property, including St. Michael's and St. Phillips in downtown Charleston. The churches say the land and buildings were paid for by members past and present and belong to them.

The Diocese of South Carolina consists of churches in the southern and eastern parts of the state who say the national church is too liberal, especially on gay marriage and because of the election of a gay bishop in 2003.

The diocese says it broke from the church because its bishop was fired.

The trial started Tuesday with testimony about the church's structure.

Both sides skipped opening statements in the interest of saving time in what's expected to be a two week trial. A judge will have the final say in what happens to the properties.

The diocese says the national church is attempting to punish any church that breaks away, including churches in Texas and Illinois.