THOSE CHURCH LAWSUITS
March 1, 1986 Issue
by Jimmie C. Smith
Since the much publicized Collinsville, Oklahoma lawsuit, brethren and churches have been fearful and intimidated concerning litigation and discipline of errant members. There has been a tirade of lawsuits filed since the Oklahoma decision. At a later date I plan to report on the present lawsuit of a former deacon of the Sixth and Izard Church of Christ, in Little Rock, Ark. against the elders of that congregation. But I wish to present a newspaper article via The Christian Chronicle".
LAWSUIT: LADY'S LETTER SAYS "SORRY"
Del Rio, Texas--The 'scarlet letter' charges against the Northside Church of Christ have been dropped after the plaintiff decided to settle out of court.
A Del Rio state district judge dismissed the lawsuit Aug. 12 after the plaintiff agreed to church stipulations that she apologize and pay $4,500 in court costs.
Jane Murray, 45, a Del Rio furniture saleswoman, filed a $300,000 lawsuit last September against the church and five male leaders. Later she increased her request for damages to $1 million.
The church countersued, asking 1.3 million in damages from Murray and her attorney, charging they had conspired against the church and had violated its civil rights. All charges have been dropped.
Murray sued the church after a letter was read aloud at a 1982 worship service. The letter reproved her extra-martial affair and withdrew fellowship.
Prior to that action, church leaders had met privately with Murray to urge her to repent. We entreated her not to continue her lifestyle and to return to her family,' said Rickie Jenkins, Northside minister.
Two years later, Murray, a former student of Freed-Hardeman College, married her lover and filed her lawsuit. Although she acknowledged she had left her husband and four children for another man, her suit alleged the church had invaded her privacy, caused her emotional distress, and damaged her reputation.
In their countersuit, attorneys for the church maintained that by her actions Murray had violated the church's rights to freedom of speech and religion.
They also contended her actions violated the contract she made to uphold the church's moral teachings when she became a part of the congregation.
'When we responded to her suit with a $1.3 million countersuit... and she realized she was also running the risk of having her activities exposed ...l think she had to confront some things she hadn't anticipated before' said Dallas attorney Donovan Campbell.
Campbell was one of the lawyers who represented the Northside church on behalf of the Rutherford Institute of Texas, a legal foundation established to help religious organizations defend their constitutional rights.
Church attorneys also pointed out that initiation of the dismissal occurred after damaging testimony was taken during the deposition.
Murray admitted to Rutherford Institute lawyers, said Campbell, that she did not initiate the lawsuit on her own. She testified that her lawyer had first called her and encouraged her to sue the church, proposing a contingency fee agreement.
Prior to Murray's move for dismissal, Campbell said church attorneys felt her statements might be ground for dismissal "if we could have shown that the lawyer had committed barratry and promoted litigation for his own benefit."
Since the Del Rio lawsuit did not go to court, it has no precedential value.
But Rutherford Institute attorneys believe it will have value in alerting potential plaintiffs and their counsel that there is a serious "down side risk" to filing a suit like this.
"Before this lawsuit," said Campbell, "I don't believe most plaintiffs and their lawyers thought there was any risk--they had nothing to lose. Now they at least have serious settlement fees they might not be expecting and the possibility of a civil rights countersuit..."
Church leaders of the 60-member Del Rio church are delighted with the outcome. They are also going to be "more cautious" about church discipline in the future, said Jenkins.
"We don't have elders, but it will make the men who make decisions even more cautious about the mechanics of disfellowshipping someone," said Jenkins. In the future, Jenkins said church leaders would probably handle any cases verbally.
He said the church is presently investigating church liability insurance policies and intends to purchase one "immediately."
The Rutherford Institute did not charge Northside for legal counsel.
We are quite concerned with the Collinsville, Okla. case and the result obtained there at the trial stage, which is clearly erroneous under the law," said Campbell.
"So we were quite receptive when contacted by this church... since we believe if the case were handled properly it could be won and hopefully would establish a national precedent which would stop the great flood of these copy-cat lawsuits."
I have submitted the above in the hope of encouraging brethren to be faithful to the Lord in the practice of the discipline taught in His word and not be intimidated by the thought of damage suits, lawyers, courts, etc. (Acts 5:29; Rom 8:31b). The size of the Del Rio congregation is about the size of a large number of congregations in our fellowship and who also do not have elders.
The Expository Review (Sept. 1985) carried some additional information. Concerning Don Campbell and Shelby Sharpe, Dallas attorneys who handled the case, "...They are members of the Rutherford Institute Foundation, which is a nationwide organization. The Rutherford Institute is set up as a 'Christian' legal defense organization. They are trying to protect what the A.C.L.U. is destroying. They are constitutional oriented and interested in preserving our rights as Christians. The foundation pays all lawyers' fees, and in our case agreed to pay all court costs. This is greatly appreciated. It is illegal for an attorney to finance his client's case, but the Rutherford Institute Foundation can, as a foundation, finance and assist in financial relief of cases..."
Brother Jenkins also wrote: "Brethren, I dare not try to tell others how to practice the scope of discipline, but be sure, God rewards the faithful. However, I do feel it expedient that I suggest that it is no longer good judgment for a church to give the disciplined one a letter concerning the discipline. For without the letter he or she would have nothing to show a lawyer."
I would say that a lot of brethren have learned the hard way about signing their name to letters. What we say has a way of being forgotten or forgiven. But letters can last a hundred years and never be forgotten, forgiven, torn, or burned!
Other OPA Article Links:
Withdrawal of Fellowship
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