SC top court decides whether to hear the MorningStar tower case. Here’s what it means

The Supreme Court of South Carolina has decided to hear MorningStar Fellowship Church’s appeals regarding the 21-story tower in Fort Mill, in a decision the church claims as both victory and rebuke.

“No doubt this South Carolina Supreme Court decision is a victory for us and a serious rebuke to the York County and circuit courts, but it is just one battle,” MorningStar President Rick Joyner said in a statement. “We’ve never doubted that if we are able to present our evidence before an impartial jury, then we would prevail, as well as illuminate some very egregious and illegal behavior on the part of some York County officials.”

York County attorney Michael Kendree said the order isn’t a decision against the county.

“The order solely grants a request for review and briefing on two of three questions presented by MorningStar,” he said. “To characterize it in any other way is overstatement.”

The state’s highest court said in a March 11 order it would hear two legal arguments presented by MorningStar, but not a third. A hearing date isn’t listed in the order.

The court will consider whether a circuit court abused its discretion by missing or ignoring evidence of money MorningStar already spent when considering damages, instead using only future damages to base a dismissal of MorningStar’s breach of contract argument.

The court also will consider whether evidence the tower is worth $12 million was ignored.

The court declined to hear a third question, whether the circuit court wrongly dismissed MorningStar’s claim of good faith and fair dealing within a contract with the county.

In 2004, MorningStar bought former Praise the Lord ministry property in the Regent Park area of Fort Mill. The 21-story Heritage Tower was part of former PTL leader Jim Bakker’s vision for a Christian megasite, including a theme park. The outside of the tower was completed. The inside wasn’t, and it hasn’t been hooked up to utilities or made ready for occupancy. Before the PTL ministry’s collapse in the late 1980s amid a sex scandal and criminal charges that sent Bakker to prison, the PTL plan was for the 500-room tower to be a hotel.

MorningStar envisions senior apartments for congregants wanting to live and worship on-site. MorningStar went to the county for permits to finish the tower that hadn’t changed much since 1988.

MorningStar and the county entered a development agreement in 2008. The agreement was to last five years. Disagreement followed. MorningStar says the county wouldn’t issue needed building permits to complete the tower.

In 2013, MorningStar filed a breach of contract lawsuit against the county, seeking damages for the county declaring the development agreement in default status. The county countered, asking for the tower to be demolished over development agreement terms and a nuisance argument.

A circuit court ruled MorningStar’s damages were speculative and struck the monetary damages claim used for its breach of contract claim.

In November, MorningStar filed a suit in federal court claiming the county violated its freedom of religion by refusing to allow the completion of the “sacred tower” for worshiping seniors. MorningStar said “hostile and discriminatory conduct” by past county leaders was uncovered in emails, including comparing its ministry with unrelated PTL and an unwillingness to let the tower project happen.

“Until this evidence of religious prejudice was found in discovery, we could not understand why the county was behaving this way,” Joyner said. “Not only was their actions in clear violations of both state and federal laws prohibiting government entities from hindering religious organizations from developing their own property, but this did not make any business sense either.”

The unfinished tower is the tallest building in York County. It’s part of a property including a hotel and conference center, along with other church facilities.

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