Dismissal sought in sex suit

June 26, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

Attorneys for a Lutheran pastor accused in a $208 million civil lawsuit of "manipulating" a former parishioner into having a sexual relationship argue that their client could not be sued for alleged "malpractice" without violating religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

In a hearing on a motion to dismiss the case before trial in Howard County Circuit Court, Judge Cornelius F. Sybert Jr. presided over a debate that had more to do with the two fundamental constitutional principles governing religion than they did with the alleged improper sexual relationship.

Unlike precedents cited by attorneys for the unidentified 31-year-old plaintiff, a suit alleging that a clergyman failed to "practice his ministry according to the standards of care of his profession" could not rely on conventional law to show wrongdoing, church attorneys argued.

The Rev. Rodney Ronneberg, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Fulton, denies having had a sexual relationship with the Columbia woman and has filed a countersuit charging the woman with defaming him.

The original suit also seeks damages from St. Paul's, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its Delaware-Maryland Synod, all of which were represented by attorneys at yesterday's hearing.

Those attorneys asked Judge Sybert to dismiss the suit on a variety of grounds, but the constitutional question dominated the hearing.

The plaintiff, who has court permission to remain anonymous in the suit, must delve into church doctrine and policies to prove her case, argued attorney Paul M. Finamore, who represents the pastor and St. Paul's. That, he said, would involve "excessive entanglement with religion" prohibited by the First and 14th Amendments to the Constitution.

One of the the woman's attorneys, John Condliffe of Hyattsville, cited precedents in which courts had prohibited dangerous religious rites such as ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and handling poisonous snakes.

"The courts have ruled squarely that the state can regulate blue laws," Christian-inspired prohibitions of commerce on Sundays, Mr. Condliffe added.

Mr. Condliffe went back to one of the framers of the Constitution to make his case. Thomas Jefferson, he said, intended that "one may believe what one wants, but one may not shirk one's duties to society."

The plaintiff's attorneys contend that members of the clergy, like doctors and therapists, are bound to practice their profession according to a set of standards.

They intended to present testimony from a female Episcopal priest yesterday, but Judge Sybert would not allow the testimony, saying it was not relevant.

Larry J. Albert, another attorney for St. Paul's and Mr. Ronneberg, argued that a case alleging pastoral misconduct could not be compared with cases involving violations of secular laws.

"We're not talking about playing with snakes, smoking peyote or beating someone to death as an initiation," he said, and to make such a comparison would set a "very dangerous" precedent by equating church policy with the government's laws.

After hearing the arguments, Judge Sybert said he would rule on the motions and decide in a week whether to permit the case to go to trial.

The woman, who filed her suit March 7, is seeking $13 million in damages for each of the 16 counts in the lawsuit.

She charges in the suit that she and Mr. Ronneberg, who is married, had several sexual encounters from May 1992 to February 1993. The suit also alleges that the pastor threatened to excommunicate her if she attended the church after their relationship ended.

In an interview this spring, the woman said that the relationship was sexual but did not include intercourse.

She said that she was having problems with her marriage and was seeking pastoral counseling when the alleged relationship began.

She also said that she was seeking the pastor's advice about becoming a minister.

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