Church-state issues arise in local lawsuit

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--A church-state attorney representing Nashville pastor Jerry Sutton has described a Sept. 14 lawsuit filed by 54 church members as "completely unfounded."

"We intend to vigorously defend [Two Rivers Baptist Church leaders against] this lawsuit," Larry Crain of Brentwood, Tenn., told Baptist Press Sept. 18.

Crain is a senior counsel with the American Center for Law & Justice led by attorney Jay Sekulow of Virginia Beach, Va.

Crain said a letter he sent to four members of the church Sept. 6 "pretty well states what our position is." In the letter, Crain recounts a number of encroachments on the First Amendment in arguments subsequently waged in the lawsuit.

The lawsuit, reported on the front page of The Tennessean newspaper Sept. 18, urged the Davidson County Chancery Court to remove Sutton as pastor along with Two Rivers' "current directors and officers"; to "require" that a business meeting be held to discuss governance issues at the church; to enforce the demand of the plaintiffs "to inspect and copy church records"; and to require the defendants to pay the plantiffs' legal fees because of the refusal to provide access to the church's records

The lawsuit makes a number of accusations against Sutton and eight other church leaders listed in the lawsuit, such as: [They} "misapplied, misappropriated, and mishandled the finances of Two Rivers" and they "intentionally and purposely" prevented the church from being governed according to its constitution and bylaws.

Crain, in his Sept. 6 letter, asserted to the four church members: "Given the inflammatory nature of the false and defamatory accusations leveled by certain individuals over the last several weeks, it is clear that your underlying motive for gaining access to these records is a calculated effort to inflict even greater injury to those in church leadership and on the church body as a whole."

Whereas the plaintiffs contended that Tennessee law gives them the right "to seek judicial intervention if a corporation does not allow a member to inspect and copy" various records, Crain responded that state law "expressly recognizes a distinction between nonprofit corporations and religion nonprofit corporations."

"The Supreme Court of the United States has long recognized the right of a church to operate free from governmental intrusion into its decisions affecting self-governance as paramount," Crain wrote.

Two Rivers "has a constitutionally protected right, grounded in church doctrine, to handle its own internal affairs and decisions affecting church membership, self-governance ... and staffing decisions, all of which flow from its recognized right as a church under the First Amendment," the ACLJ attorney wrote.

From the plaintiffs’ standpoint, however, Sutton and the other Two Rivers leaders “have refused to be accountable for their actions and have used their status to thwart any proper governance.”

Sutton, in an Aug. 15 story in Baptist Press, stated that Two Rivers undergoes an external audit each year and "always gets a clean bill of health."

A petition drive to remove Sutton began in July after one layman was removed as a Two Rivers member over the manner in which he began raising concerns about Sutton. The church's executive pastor, Scott Hutchings, told Baptist Press it was "a tough decision. There has to be submission and authority. It's OK to have disagreements. But [the member] started taking his disagreements to and causing division in the body."

According to an Aug. 15 Two Rivers news release, the church's deacons and human resource ministry team, both elected by the church, "met to discuss and consider allegations distributed by the former member to people in the church regarding alleged past conduct of Dr. Sutton. After full review and discussion, it was unanimously determined by both the Deacons and the Human Resource Ministry Team that the Senior Pastor had not committed any wrongdoing as claimed, and that there is no basis whatsoever to bring charges against, discipline or be concerned about the conduct of the Senior Pastor."

Sutton, Two Rivers’ pastor the past 21 years, is a former first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention who finished third in the SBC presidential race in 2006. He also is the author of a book chronicling the SBC's Conservative Resurgence titled, "The Baptist Reformation."


Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press.

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