Six counts of sexual misconduct lawsuit against Fulton pastor dismissed

July 22, 1994|By Alan J. Craver | Alan J. Craver,Sun Staff Writer

A Howard County judge has dismissed six counts of a $208 million civil lawsuit filed by a woman who claims a Lutheran pastor manipulated her into having a sexual relationship.

Howard Circuit Judge Cornelius Sybert Jr. said in his ruling, filed Monday, that the court would violate the constitutional separation of church and state if it considered two of the counts.

Judge Sybert issued the ruling in a suit filed in March by a 31-year-old Columbia woman claiming she had several sexual encounters with the Rev. Rodney Ronneberg, pastor of St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Fulton, between May 1992 and February 1993.

The suit names Mr. Ronneberg, St. Paul's, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and its Delaware-Maryland Synod as defendants. The woman has been permitted by the court to proceed with the case anonymously.

Mr. Ronneberg has filed a $10 million countersuit against the woman, claiming that her allegations have defamed him. He denies that he and the woman had a sexual relationship.

Judge Sybert presided over a hearing in June during which attorneys for Mr. Ronneberg and the church argued that eight counts of the 16-count suit should be dismissed before the case goes to trial.

The lawyers stated that the most controversial of the counts -- those that allege professional malpractice -- should be dismissed because the case would lead to "excessive entanglement with religion" prohibited by the Constitution.

Attorneys for the woman argued that courts have addressed religious issues, such as dangerous rites like ingesting hallucinogenic drugs and handling poisonous snakes.

Judge Sybert, however, sided with attorneys for Mr. Ronneberg and the church.

"Any attempt to identify the legal duties of a cleric would necessarily require the court to examine and define religious doctrine, practice and policies," the judge said. "This is precisely the type of entanglement which is proscribed by the Constitution."

Judge Sybert added that Maryland does not have any laws addressing professional malpractice among the clergy, although it does have such statutes covering doctors and lawyers.

Alan Fishbein, an Ellicott City attorney representing Mr. Ronneberg and the church, said he is pleased by Judge Sybert's ruling. "It's the right decision," he said. "The constitutional issues are very clear."

But John Condliffe, a Hyattsville lawyer for the plaintiff, said alleged clergy malpractice is not an issue that will fade away. "I think it's something the court sooner or later is going to have to address," he said.

Judge Sybert also dismissed four counts alleging that the woman was defamed and put in a false light by the minister. The judge will permit the woman's lawyers to refile those counts.

Dismissal of two other counts alleging the infliction of emotional distress was denied by the judge.

Mr. Condliffe said he expects to refile, within the 30-day deadline set by Judge Sybert, the four counts alleging that his client was defamed and put in a false light by Mr. Ronneberg.

The judge said the counts must contain more information for the court to consider, such as the dates of the alleged incidents.

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