Judge accuses church of intimidation attempt

Prince George's group said to have warned of its power at polls

September 08, 2000|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

A Maryland Court of Appeals judge yesterday accused members of a Prince George's County church of organizing "a campaign to intimidate this court" by sending letters to the judges, urging them to rule in favor of their church in a property lawsuit.

Judge Dale R. Cathell angrily interrupted Jack Lipson, who represents From the Heart Church Ministries, during the beginning of his statement to ask if he knew that his clients had picketed the courthouse during a previous hearing and wrote 30 to 50 letters to each of the seven judges, all ending with what the judge paraphrased as, "We will remember in November."

Lipson answered he did not know about the church's actions.

"It is not part of the case we are presenting," he said.

The scolding began the hearing before the state's highest court on whether From the Heart, a Temple Hills breakaway church led by the Rev. John A. Cherry, can keep the $39 million worth of assets it acquired while affiliated with the national African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The property, which both churches claim they own, includes the buildings and a Learjet.

One of the letters to the judges, which were copied to a number of the AME Zion bishops, asked where the wisdom is of the bishops who "apparently Do Not fear the Lord. ... They should be mindful that they are not exempt from God's Command, nor His wrath."

After the letters reviewed why From the Heart should win the dispute, they closed by saying, "We can ensure you that all eligible voters in our 25,000 From the Heart Church membership will remember the PG elected folks in November!"

The scene outside the courthouse was quiet yesterday as about 90 people packed the courtroom for the 1 1/2 -hour hearing.

The judges asked only a few questions and did not indicate when they would issue their ruling on the case, which could have a wide impact on other Maryland religious denominations.

During the hearing, Lipson argued that the Prince George's County Circuit Court erred in March when it ruled in favor of AME Zion, apparently basing the decision on the issue of a trust provision in AME Zion's Book of Discipline, which governs the church.

"This trust provision does not contain anything that directs From the Heart to surrender its property to AME Zion if and when it withdrew from the church," he said.

Cherry broke away from AME Zion in July 1999 after 18 years with the denomination to form the new church, and most of the local church's 24,000 members followed.

According to court records, the church's board of trustees, while still under AME Zion, passed a resolution in June 1998 that transferred all of its assets to From the Heart. Lipson said Cherry told Bishop Milton A. Williams Sr., presiding bishop of the Philadelphia-Baltimore Annual Conference, which includes the local AME Zion church, about his plan to restructure the church including the assets, which Lipson said the local church bought with its own money.

However James E. Ferguson II, general counsel for AME Zion, based in Charlotte, N.C., disputed that ever happened. He said it was Cherry's duty to ensure that the property was deeded under the Book of Discipline's rules.

Ferguson said that it didn't matter if the church was informed about the property transfer. He argued that the Book of Discipline does not allow a waiver of its rules that dictate that all congregations' property is held in trust for the use and benefit of AME Zion, which has more than 1 million members in more than 3,000 congregations in the United States.

Bishop George W. Walker, president of AME Zion's Board of Bishops, said the national denomination's rules have been upheld in past court cases when other local churches have broken away. He said in those cases, the courts ruled the property belonged to AME Zion.

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