Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Do unto others....

Church lawsuits.

You gotta love them.

Okay you don't have to love them but they are interesting.

Summit Christian, pastor face 2nd defamation suit
Abe Levy - Express-News

The former chief financial officer of Summit Christian Center is suing the church and Pastor Rick Godwin, claiming Godwin defamed him from the pulpit last year in an attempt to shift the blame for financial misdeeds that the CFO says he helped uncover.

It is the second defamation lawsuit in recent months against Godwin and the church, formerly Eagle’s Nest Christian Fellowship, which closed its U.S. Highway 281 site in May to move to a more spacious, $36 million facility on the far North Side at Marshall Road.

Jim Yostrum’s suit follows a similar one by Larry Nail, a former 11-year church member from Boerne. The two men are among a group that left the church after objecting to Godwin’s spending and raising concerns about the lack of oversight at the church, an independent congregation that reportedly draws about 2,500 people to its services.

Both lawsuits reference a November weekend of services in which Godwin reprimanded the two men before thousands for working against the church’s interests in the aftermath of San Antonio Express-News reports questioning Godwin’s spending of a church fund designated for missions and outreach.

Many of Godwin’s expenses were made at the same time he was raising money for the new facility. In the tens of thousands of dollars, they ranged from chartering jet planes to buying expensive gifts for family, elders and church associates to stays at luxury hotels, among other items.

Godwin has said he paid back personal expenses but hasn’t been specific. Last year he also announced that a law firm was reviewing church policies, and recently a set of policies including financial accountability and governance as well as a one-page budget report were posted on the church’s Web site.

Godwin and church leaders have not responded to repeated requests for comment, including calls to the church Tuesday.

The church has argued in Nail’s lawsuit that the courts are barred from deciding matters of church discipline protected by the Constitution, said Jerry Gibson, the church’s attorney in that litigation. He was unaware of the Yostrum lawsuit, filed Friday in district court, and said he could not comment on it. A hearing in Nail’s case is set for Sept. 2.

Yostrum believes Godwin’s remarks defamed him because the pastor described him as failing his duties as CFO, violating tax laws and not reporting financial problems to church staff and elders.

According to Yostrum, who is now vice president of finance and corporate controller at San Antonio-based Lancer Corp., he did raise the subject with two elders, Clayton Mabry and Guillermo Rocha. He also says he discussed the financial problems with bookkeeper Rose Roque and longtime staff member Kameron Lombard. Roque provided more documentation of questionable spending and Lombard said, “You don’t question Rick’s expenses,” according to the suit.

Yostrum details his experience coming to the church in July 2007 from Pennsylvania to scale back his busy lifestyle as an accountant for large companies. During interviews for the San Antonio job, he says in his lawsuit, he thought it was odd that Godwin told him he “never wants the IRS to have his money.”

Yostrum also says in the suit that he was startled to learn Godwin earned more than six figures and that his wife, Cindy, the executive pastor, made nearly six figures. His surprise grew when he learned the church also pays a six-figure amount annually to Godwin’s retirement fund despite having told the staff he didn’t support retirement funds.

Godwin’s spending habits caused Yostrum the most concern, he says in the suit, especially after a 2005 audit warned of IRS violations that went unheeded the next two years. Generally, civil courts have avoided deciding internal church disputes, said John Witte Jr., director of Emory Law School’s Center for the Study of Law and Religion in Atlanta.

At issue is whether Godwin’s actions are “religious worship” and part of the church’s “internal governance” protected by the Constitution, and thus likely to lead to dismissal of the lawsuit, he said. Or, the judge could determine that Godwin’s remarks constituted private acts by a man who happens to be a pastor, which could lead to a trial and possibly a conclusion that the remarks were defamatory.

“That characterization is going to be what’s really up for dispute,” Witte said. “Deference is the norm. Courts when invited to weigh in on these disputes generally defer to the internal religious authority’s judgment.”

Summit Christian is an independent church without affiliation to a denomination. Elders, who include the pastor, run the church, but certain powers are granted to the pastor, according to the most recent bylaws posted on the church’s Web site.

“These were secular and defamatory statements that hurt Mr. Yostrum in his profession,” said Cindy Olson Bourland of Austin, who with Gary Richardson of Tulsa, Okla., is representing Yostrum and Nail in their lawsuits. “Religion has nothing to do with it.”