Judge rejects case of church suing over convicted pastor

He says court system has no right to rule whether congregation violated law

December 11, 2003|BY A SUN STAFF WRITER

An Anne Arundel County circuit judge has refused to hear a national church's argument that a Glen Burnie congregation violated membership bylaws when it voted to keep its pastor after he pleaded guilty to stealing from a Baltimore women's shelter.

Judge Ronald A. Silkworth ruled that the "strict wall of separation" between church and state meant that the court system did not have the jurisdiction to decide the case.

The Maryland-D.C. District of the United Pentecostal Church sued Apostolic Lighthouse Church earlier this year after the Glen Burnie church's board unanimously decided that Paul A. Murray would remain as their pastor.

In August, Murray was sentenced to six months of home detention and six months of probation for stealing more than $40,000 from the Susanna Wesley House, a Baltimore women's shelter where he worked. Murray, who pleaded guilty, is paying restitution.

After his sentence, the United Pentecostal Church revoked Murray's pastor license and removed him as minister of Apostolic Lighthouse.

But church members said they forgave Murray and wanted him to remain as their pastor. Rather than lose him as their leader, the church voted to disaffiliate with the Pentecostal organization.

Though Silkworth said the courts can intervene when religious organizations have disputes over property rights, he concluded last month that ownership wasn't a factor in this case. In an earlier hearing, the plaintiffs conceded that Apostolic Lighthouse was the owner of the church property on Point Pleasant Road.

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