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Wednesday, July 30, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor arrested for incest and murder

MOBILE, Ala. - A Mobile man is facing charges of murder, rape, sodomy, and incest. Police believe Anthony Hopkins murdered his wife, and kept her in the freezer putting his family through a reign of terror and sexual abuse. It happened on Rylands Street.

Police say behind the yellow tape lived a family of eight children who've endured years of abuse. Police say their father, Anthony Hopkins; most likely killed his wife, and sexually abused at least one of his kids. But thanks to one brave child, it looks like the nightmare could be over.

Police say inside the brick walls was a family in pain. Living there was a father, a so-called evangelical preacher named Anthony Hopkins. Eight children were also under his roof. Monday night, one of those children paid a visit to the Child Advocacy Center. She arrived with a startling accusation.

"We had a victim present at our offices who complained about an on-going case of sexual abuse that had taken place over many years," said Steve Giardini, with the Child Advocacy Center.

So, investigators searched the home, and what they found was even more shocking... the frozen body of a woman. They believe she was Hopkins’ wife, Arletha. Police say they found the body in a freezer. It was wrapped in a sheet, and placed in a utility room behind the home.

"We believe it has been there for quite a while. The last known reporting or sighting of her has been three years," said Mobile Police Chief Phillip Garrett.

Police have spent the past twenty-four hours searching the home, hoping to get a glimpse into a dark world. Police say the family kept a low-profile by moving around a lot. The kids were also home-schooled.

"Home-schooling under this situation removed almost any chances of us catching up with these kinds of things," explained District Attorney John Tyson Junior.

Now, those kids are with the Department of Human Resources.

"They're in protective custody. Obviously, this situation has been an ordeal for them. But, they're certainly better off then they were, there's no question about that," said Giardini.

Police say it will be a few days before they can make a positive ID on the body. That's because it's been in the freezer so long. Hopefully, an autopsy will help reveal what happened to this victim.


JACKSON, Ala. - Pastor Beverly Jackson Recorded the first night of the revival at Inspirational Tabernacle church in Jackson. The service included something she never expected, the arrest of a visiting minister.

"They run in, and they had their guns out. I didn't know what was going on. I though it was the alarm system had gone off,” she said.

Anthony Hopkins had been preaching for about an hour. Jackson had invited the Mobile minister to conduct a week-long revival.

He and seven of his 8 children were at the church along with about 50 other church members.

Hopkins seven children sat on the front pew of the church. When their father finished his sermon they got up. The seven year old went to the drums. His 17-year-old daughter played the keyboard and the guitar. Even the four year old had a guitar of his own. But, within minutes their father was under arrest and they were in protective custody.

"The children didn't say much. They were very withdrawn,” said the police chief.

Jackson Police Chief Charles Burge said his officers and Clark County Sheriff's deputies made the arrest. They received a call from Mobile PD telling them to take Hopkins in before the service ended.

"There was concern about the safety of the children he had with him in the church. That's why they wanted to get him as quickly as possible,” he said.

Pastor Jackson said Hopkins had told her his wife died in childbirth several years ago.

She said at one point in the pulpit Hopkins sermon appeared to be directed at his children and his oldest daughter who wasn't there.

"I remember something he said, like he knew what was going to happen. He said he had talked to his oldest daughter that morning, and he has told the children he want them to forgive him for his past, present, and future. And he said that he told his daughter that morning he love her, and she has to do whatever she has to do,” she said.

Pastor Jackson said the revival at her church will go on the rest of the week without Hopkins and his family. The Jackson police chief said members of the Department of Human Resources picked up the children at police headquarters in Jackson around 2:00 a.m. Tuesday.


Sunday, July 27, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Kenneth Copeland's prosperity empire

In the gentle hills of north Texas, televangelist Kenneth Copeland has built a religious empire teaching that God wants his followers to prosper.

Over the years, a circle of Copeland's relatives and friends have done just that, The Associated Press has found. They include the brother-in-law with a lucrative deal to broker Copeland's television time, the son who acquired church-owned land for his ranching business and saw it more than quadruple in value, and board members who together have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for speaking at church events.

Church officials say no one improperly benefits through ties to Copeland's vast evangelical ministry, which claims more than 600,000 subscribers in 134 countries to its flagship "Believer's Voice of Victory" magazine. The board of directors signs off on important matters, they say. Yet church bylaws give Copeland veto power over board decisions.

While Copeland insists that his ministry complies with the law, independent tax experts who reviewed information obtained by the AP through interviews, church documents and public records have their doubts. The web of companies and non-profits tied to the televangelist calls the ministry's integrity into question, they say.

"There are far too many relatives here," said Frances Hill, a University of Miami law professor who specializes in nonprofit tax law. "There's too much money sloshing around and too much of it sloshing around with people with overlapping affiliations and allegiances by either blood or friendship or just ties over the years. There are red flags all over these relationships."

Copeland, 71, is a pioneer of the prosperity gospel, which holds that believers are destined to flourish spiritually, physically and financially _ and share the wealth with others.

His ministry's 1,500-acre campus, behind an iron gate a half-hour drive from Fort Worth, is testament to his success. It includes a church, a private airstrip, a hangar for the ministry's $17.5 million jet and other aircraft, and a $6 million church-owned lakefront mansion.

Already a well-known figure, Copeland has come under greater scrutiny in recent months. He is one target of a Senate Finance Committee investigation into allegations of questionable spending and lax financial accountability at six large televangelist organizations that preach health-and-wealth theology.

All have denied wrongdoing. But Copeland has fought back the hardest, refusing to answer most questions from the inquiry's architect, Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa.

Copeland's church also has invited an Internal Revenue Service audit, which would keep information private, and has launched a sophisticated Web site, Believers Stand United, to "help set the record straight."

The Senate committee didn't set out to determine whether Copeland or the others broke the law, although it could provide information to the Internal Revenue Service if something seems flagrantly wrong, a committee aide said. The main goal, Grassley has said, is to figure out whether existing tax laws governing churches are adequate, which could carry sweeping implications for all religious organizations.

The committee could subpoena Copeland if he remains uncooperative. Neither he nor John Copeland, his son and the ministry's chief executive officer, responded to interview requests.

But Lawrence Swicegood, spokesman for Kenneth Copeland Ministries, said in written responses to questions that no Copeland family members receive improper benefits through their ties to the church.

All revenue from the church's business interests _ including an oil and natural gas company it owns _ go into the church, Swicegood said.

He said that Kenneth Copeland has never exercised his veto power over board decisions, a provision meant for emergency use. Even so, Swicegood said, the board is scheduled to meet in August to vote on taking away that ability.


Kenneth Copeland has always dreamed big.

Growing up in West Texas next to an Army air base, Copeland wanted to fly. He also wanted to sing pop songs. He realized both ambitions and didn't stop there.

In 1957, when he was 20, Copeland scored a Top 40 hit called "Pledge of Love" and sang on "American Bandstand."

The journey that led to the pulpit began several years later. Copeland had a born-again experience and enrolled at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla. He worked as a pilot and chauffeur for Roberts himself.

Copeland was greatly influenced by Tulsa prosperity preacher Kenneth Hagin, locking himself in the garage with Hagin's tapes for seven days before moving back to Texas to start his ministry in the late 1960s.

Now a 500-employee operation with a budget in the tens of millions of dollars, Kenneth Copeland Ministries has won supporters worldwide through its crusades and conferences, prayer request network, disaster relief work, magazine and television program.

Kenneth Copeland Ministries is organized under the tax code as a church, so it gets a layer of privacy not afforded large secular and religious nonprofit groups that must disclose budgets and salaries. Pastors' pay must be "reasonable" under the federal tax code, a term that gives churches wide latitude.

Copeland's current salary is not made public by his ministry. However, the church disclosed in a property-tax exemption application that his wages were $364,577 in 1995; Copeland's wife, Gloria, earned $292,593. It's not clear whether those figures include other earnings, such as special offerings for guest preaching or book royalties. Another 13 Copeland relatives were on the church's payroll that year.

In the 1980s, Copeland's church purchased land on the shores of Eagle Mountain Lake from the estate of a Texas oilman. Afterward, it discovered added value underground: an oil and gas field.

Grassley, the senator leading the televangelist inquiry, has quizzed Copeland about Security Petrol Inc., a wholly owned _ and for-profit _ subsidiary of the church created in 1997 to manage that resource.

Swicegood said Security Petrol was established to protect the church from the liability risk of oil and gas production and to minimize interference with the church's religious activities.

No company officials _ including John Copeland, its president _ has received compensation or profits from the company, and all revenue goes to the church for general operations, Swicegood said. Reserves from gas wells in the church's name were valued at $23 million last year, county records show.

Speaking at a ministers' conference in January, Kenneth Copeland accused Grassley of twisting reality to make it look like the natural gas "was making us rich off of the ministry's property. Bull. That's stupid."

It's not the only business venture tied to the church.

While natural gas platforms sprouted on church land, John Copeland, a self-described "cowboy at heart," pursued a side business in cattle and horses. Beginning in 1993, John Copeland leased church land to run his business, El Rancho Fe, Spanish for "Ranch of Faith."

Five years later, the church separately sold John Copeland land for his ranch and residence, Swicegood said.

Swicegood said appraisals were done to determine fair market value for leasing and selling the land, adding that the lease benefits the church. John Copeland must improve the land, and county officials confirmed the church gets a roughly $100,000 annual tax break for putting it to agricultural use. The church board approved the transactions.

While the purchase price is not public record, the 33-acre property would have been worth about $93,000 that year, said John Marshall, executive director of the Tarrant Appraisal District.

The land is now valued at $554,160 by the district.

Until recently, El Rancho Fe sold registered American Quarter Horses and three other horse breeds. On its Web site, convenient location and the integrity of the Copeland name were used as selling points.

"We are a family you know and a family you trust," it said.

John Copeland and his wife, Marty, no longer sell horses but continue to operate the cattle business, Swicegood said.

Ellen Aprill, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, said leasing and selling land to the church's top executive raises concerns. Under IRS rules, nonprofits can be penalized or lose their tax-exempt status if an executive, board member or other insider receives an economic benefit above and beyond what the organization gets in return.

"The church and its board must take great care to make sure the payments are fair to the church," Aprill said. "The church says it does. But is not clear how we can know."


Located in an office complex in a north Dallas suburb, Integrity Media is the kind of company that plays a little-known but important role in the world of televangelism: negotiating the purchase of television time for Christian ministries.

Douglas Neece, the company's president, said Kenneth Copeland Ministries is Integrity Media's biggest client, accounting for just over 50 percent of its business.

Neece is Kenneth Copeland's brother-in-law. Neece's son, Joel, also works for the company.

The church's board was informed of Neece's relationship to the Copelands, Swicegood said. Their television time is bought at market rates and the ministry gets a discount from Integrity Media, he said.

Douglas Neece said his company charges a "deeply discounted" commission below the industry standard of 15 percent. "We earn our money," Neece said. "That's just the way it is.

"We have nothing to hide."

The money involved is substantial. In a 1997 filing in Tarrant County, Copeland's church said it paid a "related party" $22 million for "telecast and mass media expense" that year and received a discount of $1.7 million on the transaction. Similar figures were cited for 1996.

Integrity Media, meanwhile, is the parent company to a horse-breeding operation and real estate company that owns a Learjet, records show. Although they are wholly owned subsidiaries of Integrity Media, Neece played down the connections.

"The subsidiaries don't have anything to do with the media-buying corporation," he said. "We've had several through the years, and these things are not connected with the Copeland ministry."

Whatever the venture _ whether it's buying TV time, land deals with a church executive or natural gas wells _ Kenneth Copeland Ministries cites its 11-member board of directors as an important check on the organization's integrity.

Kenneth Copeland serves as board chairman, and his wife, Gloria, is a board member. Records show other members include or have included fellow televangelists Jesse Duplantis, Mac and Lynne Hammond, and Jerry and Carolyn Savelle; Oklahoma architect Loyal Furry; retired Texas pastor Harold Nichols; and Arkansas businessman John Best.

As chairman, Copeland has veto power over any resolution he deems "not in the best financial or operational interests of the Church or not in furtherance of the nonprofit religious purposes of the Church," church bylaws say.

Such veto power is highly unusual, say academics who study nonprofits. Swicegood said the provision was meant to give Copeland emergency power to prevent the church from doing anything "repugnant to its Christian purposes and mission" _ although the bylaws don't lay that out. Swicegood said the church plans to remove that provision and adopt others that "reflect contemporary best practices in nonprofit governance."

Board member Best, in a written response to questions, said he's received "100 percent accessibility to anything I wanted to see and have always seen the highest level of integrity and honesty."

Other board members either declined comment, did not respond to interview requests or could not be located. The church has emphasized that board members act in the church's best interest.

Some board members, however, receive a perk that experts like Hill, of the University of Miami, said undermines their independence. While board members don't get salaries, some who are ministers get paid for speaking at church events through offerings and honorariums, Swicegood confirmed.

The sums involved are usually kept secret. But in seeking tax exemption for its aircraft fleet in the late 1990s, the church revealed that it paid board members a total of $87,000 in "cash contributions" and almost $1 million in honorariums and "benefit purposes" in 1996 and '97.

Swicegood said the church's independent compensation committee approves all payments to board members.

Marilyn Phelan, a Texas Tech University law professor and author on nonprofit law, said the practice could pose problems in an IRS audit. Both the IRS and Texas state law prohibit benefits beyond reasonable compensation for insiders, including board members, she said. If violations are found, nonprofits can lose their tax-exempt status and board members can face penalty taxes.

As the Senate Finance Committee considers its next step, Copeland is not backing down. His ministry is portraying the inquiry as an attack on religious liberty.

At the same time, it is moving forward with a big fund-raising project: soliciting donations for new television equipment so Copeland can be broadcast in high-definition.


Saturday, July 26, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor sentenced to 20 years for sex crimes

DAYTON — A former Riverside pastor convicted of multiple sex crimes against underage females was sentenced Friday, July 25, to 20 years in prison.

"The damage done to the eight victims and their families is enormous," Montgomery County Common Pleas Judge Dennis Langer told Dennis Bowling.

Bowling, 47, who had been pastor of Kingdom Harvest Church, 2360 Valley Pike, Riverside, pleaded guilty June 25 to 15 felonies, including two counts of rape of a child under the age of 13.

Langer said that the victims, which included two of Bowling's relatives, were all between the ages of 12 and 16 when the crimes occurred. The events span 10 years, Langer said.

Under the plea agreement reached between assistant Montgomery County prosecutors and defense attorney Dennis Lieberman, Bowling was to be sentenced to between 10 and 20 years in prison, without any chance for early release.

Bowling apologized for his conduct, but Langer told him than anything less than 20 years would not be enough.

Several of Bowlings victims gave victim impact statements, and Langer read statements from others. Their stories told of manipulation of their spiritual beliefs and their need for a father figure, leading to sexual abuse, then later feelings of shame, depression and anxiety.

Some spoke of an inability to trust authority figures. Others spoke of a loss of faith in God.

Bowling was also designated a Tier 3 sex offender, requiring both community notification when he moves to a new residence, plus registration with the sheriff's office every 90 days for the rest of his life.

Bowling had been indicted on 90 felony charges. All but 15 were dropped under the agreement. Bowling pleaded to the two rape counts, both first-degree felonies punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The other charges included eight counts of sexual battery, three counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of gross sexual imposition.


Tuesday, July 22, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Come out, foul demon!

ANDERSON COUNTY — On Sunday an 18-year-old man returned to his home from a gay pride parade and was assaulted by his father with a baseball bat. According to the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, the battering took place about 1 p.m. Sunday on P Street.

During the assault, the teen’s 49-year-old father yelled, cursed, swung a bat, prayed and tried to “cast the demon of homosexuality out of him,” according to the teen’s version of events to Deputy S.C. Weymouth, the incident report states.

About 2 p.m. Wednesday, the teen said his father punched him when he returned to the house for clothes that he left on Sunday, the report states.

The teen’s 49-year-old father yelled, cursed, swung a bat, prayed and tried to “cast the demon of homosexuality out of him.” The teen told deputies that his father “has a problem with him being gay and that is why he hit him with the baseball bat Sunday,” Weymouth said in his report.

The teen filed both complaints about 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Deputies, who have not been able to make immediate contact with the teen’s father, report that both incidents are under investigation.


Monday, July 21, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Codex Sinaiticus gets its own website

More than 1,600 years after it was written in Greek, one of the oldest copies of the Bible will become globally accessible online for the first time this week.

From Thursday, sections of the Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the oldest complete New Testament, will be available on the Internet, said the University of Leipzig, one of the four curators of the ancient text worldwide.

High resolution images of the Gospel of Mark, several Old Testament books, and notes on the work made over centuries will appear on as a first step towards publishing the entire manuscript online by next July.

Ulrich Johannes Schneider, director of Leipzig University Library, which holds part of the manuscript, said the publication of the Codex online would allow anyone to study a work of "fundamental" importance to Christians.

"A manuscript is going onto the net which is like nothing else online to date," Schneider said. "It's also an enrichment of the virtual world -- and a bit of a change from YouTube."

Selected translations will be available in English and German for those not conversant in ancient Greek, he added.

High resolution images of the Gospel of Mark, several Old Testament books, and notes on the work made over centuries will appear on
Dating from around 350, the document is believed by experts to be the oldest known copy of the Bible, along with the Codex Vaticanus, another ancient version of the Bible, Schneider said.

The vellum manuscript came to Europe piece by piece from Saint Catherine's Monastery by Mount Sinai after German biblical scholar Konstantin von Tischendorf found a number of folios there in 1844. He was allowed to take some to Leipzig.

Tischendorf returned to the monastery in 1859 with Russian backing and acquired the biggest section of the Bible for his imperial sponsors. It remained in St. Petersburg until the Soviet Union sold it to the British Museum in 1933.

"The first section was clearly a gift to Tischendorf, but that's not so clear in the case of the second portion. The monks all signed a contract at the time, but the rumor persists that they were given a raw deal," said Schneider.

"And there is probably some truth to this."

Subsequent discoveries meant that the original Codex, missing roughly half the Old Testament, is now housed at four locations in Europe and the Middle East.

The project, launched in cooperation with the Russian National Library, the British Library and Saint Catherine's Monastery, also details the condition of the Bible, believed to have been written by early Christians in Egypt.

"I think it's just fantastic that thanks to technology we can now make the oldest cultural artifacts -- ones that were once so precious you couldn't show them to anyone -- accessible to everyone, in really high quality," said Schneider.


Saturday, July 19, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor Charged With Rape, Kidnapping

A former pastor of a Lutheran church in Belmont County was arraigned Friday on kidnapping and rape charges.

The charges of sexual misconduct against Peter Pilger, 36, include a period of time while he was pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Martins Ferry.

Pilger is accused of sexually abusing a girl over the past six years, including a year while he was pastor of the Martins Ferry church between 1999 and 2003.

After he left Martins Ferry, Pilger became pastor of churches in Massillon and New Albany, Ohio.

Stark County prosecutors filed the charges after the girl told her friends about the abuse and they encouraged her to tell her mother, a Canton newspaper reported.

Pilger has been in the Stark County Jail since his arrest on July 2.

The current pastor of the Martins Ferry church said his congregation had two different reactions when they heard the news about Pilger.

"(They either said), 'I really don't believe it,' or 'I always thought he was strange,'" said Philip Van Dam, pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church.

An official with the Northeast Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said council members voted to terminate Pilger in April, then voted to terminate him last week, meaning he is no longer a pastor.


Another report:

Allegations of sexual abuse against a former Martins Ferry pastor came to light during a child's sleepover confession, according to reports.

Peter Pilger, 36, of Warren, Ohio, will be arraigned today in Stark County Common Pleas Court on multiple charges of rape, kidnapping and gross sexual imposition, according to a spokeswoman in the Stark County Prosecutor's Office.

Pilger was arrested July 2 on allegations he sexually abused a female family member who is now 12 years old over the course of as many as six years. Reports indicate the allegations came to light in April, when the alleged victim made the claims to friends while playing a game called "Deep Dark Secrets." Those friends encouraged the alleged victim to tell her mother of the abuse.

Pilger was installed April 6 as the pastor of the Faith Lutheran Church in Massillon, Ohio, just days before the allegations were made. He served from 2003-2007 at a New Albany, Ohio, church and from 1999-2003 as pastor of St. John's Lutheran Church in Martins Ferry.

On Thursday, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America said Pilger was placed on administrative leave when the allegations against him were made. After Pilger refused to resign his post, the congregation voted to terminate his call.

"We are shocked and deeply saddened by this," Eaton said. "This is a terrible thing. It's extremely serious, and we have zero tolerance for sexual misconduct. It's always the hope the church is a safe place, especially for children. It's sad when something like this happens to a child, especially by a member of the church."

On Thursday, the Rev. Philip Van Dam, current pastor of St. John's in Martins Ferry, said there were no allegations of sexual misconduct against Pilger during his time in Martins Ferry or his prior tenure at a church in Montana.

The Stark County prosecutor's spokeswoman said Pilger faces a first-degree felony count of rape, three counts of second-degree felony attempted rape, a felony charge of kidnapping and multiple counts of gross sexual imposition.

Tony Dalayanis, Pilger's attorney, could not be reached Thursday for comment.


Saturday, July 12, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Church lures teenagers with assault rifle giveaway

An Oklahoma church canceled plans for a gun giveaway Friday at its annual youth conference, a local news station reported.

The church's youth pastor, Bob Ross, said the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle was a means of luring young people as far away as Canada, according to Oklahoma City's KOCO Channel 5 News.

“I don’t want people thinking ‘My goodness, we’re putting a weapon in the hand of somebody that doesn’t respect it who are then going to go out and kill,'” said Ross. “That’s not at all what we’re trying to do.”

The gun giveaway is a part of the event's shooting competition. A gun was given away at last year's conference and this year, Windsor Hills Baptist used the giveaway in the marketing of the event on its Web site (see above picture).

The pastor said the cancellation of the giveaway was due to the instructor of the shooting competition -- and a pastor of the church -- having injured his foot and being unable to attend.

The cancellation occurred after coverage of the controversy by local news stations.

A day before this story broke, a 12-year-old John White was accidentally shot in the head and killed in Oklahoma County by a 14-year-old friend who had easy access to his grandfather's loaded weapons, local news stations reported.

"We would still have John with us today if people had taken more care, if they had used gun locks or gun safes," says Kim Proc, John White's great aunt.

Proc says officials told them they confiscated at least seven loaded guns from the home where White was that day, all owned by the 14-year-old's grandfather, Channel 52 KSBI-TV reported.

John White's family is determined to make sure his death impacts the way guns are kept in homes by changing the law.


Friday, July 11, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Catholic League goes crackers over "hate crime"

A Minnesota university instructor and avowed atheist is jousting with a national Catholic watch dog group over a smuggled communion wafer, which the associate professor dismisses as a "frackin’ cracker."

Paul Z. Myers, who teaches biology at the University of Minnesota, Morris, on his blog this week expressed amazement that a Florida college student who briefly took a wafer "hostage" from a church ceremony has been receiving death threats for an action that was characterized "a hate crime" by the Catholic League.

Under the headline, "It’s a frackin’ cracker!" Myers wrote in an at-times profane blog entry: "Crazy Christian fanatics right here in our own country have been threatening to kill a young man over a cracker. This is insane."

He added: "Can anyone out there score me some consecrated communion wafers? ... I’ll show you sacrilege, gladly, and with much fanfare. I won’t be tempted to hold it hostage ... but will instead treat it with profound disrespect and heinous cracker abuse, all photographed and presented here on the web. I shall do so joyfully and with laughter in my heart."

His blog entry has collected nearly 1,000 comments since it was posted Tuesday.

The Catholic League, a civil rights group that challenges any instances it sees as an afront to Catholicism, said today that it is calling on the university to act against Myers, noting that Myers’ blog can be accessed through a link on the university’s website.

"It is hard to think of anything more vile than to intentionally desecrate the Body of Christ," Catholic League President Bill Donohue said in a news release. "We look to those who have oversight responsibility to act quickly and decisively."

Myers, who was raised Lutheran and now considers himself a card-carrying atheist, said he’s been getting a "few death threats" since the conflict began, "but I don’t take them too seriously."

His opponents, he said, describe him as a "strident, militant atheist" because of his activism in the debate of evolution vs. creationism.


Thursday, July 10, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Man sues church over prayer session injuries

KNOXVILLE -- A Sevier County man is suing his former church in South Knoxville, after he claims he was overcome by the spirit, fell backward and hit his head.

Matt Lincoln, 57, says pastors at Lakewind Church should have made sure someone caught him.

His attorney is asking for $2.5 million to cover medical bills, lost income and pain and suffering.

"I've fallen out in the spirit before, but have always been caught," Matt Lincoln says. "I always trusted that the catchers would be there because they always were."
The case stems from a Wednesday night service at Lakewind in June 2007, when a visiting minister was praying for members individually.

"I just closed my eyes. I was just asking God, I wanted to have a real experience. It's like you faint. It's almost like you pass out," Lincoln says.

He also says that wasn't unusual.

"I've fallen out in the spirit before, but have always been caught," Lincoln says. "I always trusted that the catchers would be there because they always were."

This time, he says, was different.

"I hit. I hit full force backwards," he says.

After one year and two surgeries, Lincoln says he still hurts all the time.

"It's pain in the back and it goes down my legs," he says.

Lincoln says he only decided to file a lawsuit when his claim for medical bills was denied by the church's insurance company.

"There's no amount of money that can compensate for what's happened to me. My life is totally altered. There's so much I won't be able to do for the rest of my life," he says.

Lawyers for the church didn't want to go on camera, but say in an answer to the lawsuit that Lincoln was observed that night by other congregants to be on the floor laughing, that he failed to look out for his own safety and that court involvement with the ministry of this church would be unconstitutional.

Matt Lincoln's lawyer expects the case to go before a jury sometime next year.


Saturday, July 05, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Luthern Minister arrested on child sex charges

A community and a congregation are in shock over the arrest of a minister on child sex charges. 67-year-old Dennis Hayes, a pastor at St. Martin's Lutheran Church in Watertown, South Dakota, is charged with 3 counts of sexual contact with a minor. Court records state that Hayes molested a boy in southwest Minnesota. That case led Watertown police to Hayes' home where investigators say they found child pornography on his computer.

Hayes has been placed on administrative leave by his church. While his parishioners hope and pray that the charges aren't true.

The arrest of a man of God on child sex charges has shaken a congregation to its core. Allen Steinmetz said, "It's very heartbreaking to our family."

Allen Steinmetz is a lifelong member of St. Martin's Lutheran Church in Watertown who says suspect, and pastor, Dennis Hayes would go out of his way to help families in need. Steinmetz and his wife MarKay raised two daughters under Hayes' ministerial care. "He baptized our children, we go to St. Martin' Church."

Hayes' wife babysat the two Steinmetz kids. Daughter Keanna speaks glowingly of the pastor she grew up with. "He's a good guy, he's a good counselor, and he's patient and understanding."

Police say their investigation into Hayes is "ongoing." But they aren't saying if other victims are involved. Troy Van Dusen, of the Watertown Police Department said, "It's a tough case, it's tough for everyone involved, but we have to treat it equally with every other case we work."

As the investigation moves along, church members like Steinmetz are placing their faith in their pastor and the judicial system. "And when this whole thing goes through, I hope he's proven innocent... it's just very hard."

I spoke by phone today with Pastor Hayes. He said his attorney told him not to discuss the case publicly.


Tuesday, July 01, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Performing unwilling exorcisms ruled a constitutional right -- in Texas

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Colleyville church Friday saying that church members involved in a traumatic exorcism that ultimately injured a young woman is protected by the First Amendment.

In a 6-3 decision, the court ruled that the Pleasant Glade Assembly of God’s efforts to cast out demons from the Laura Schubert presents an ecclesiastical dispute over religious conduct that would unconstitutionally entangle the court in church doctrine.

In a 1996 lawsuit against the church, Schubert described a wild night involving the casting out of demons from the church and two separate attempts to exorcise demons from her.

"The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion’s name."
Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson
The 2002 trial of the suit never touched on the religious aspects of the case, and a Tarrant County jury found the church and its members liable for abusing and falsely imprisoning Schubert, who was 17 at the time. The jury awarded Schubert $300,000 for mental anguish, but the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth shaved $122,000 from the verdict for loss of future income.

But the church raised the question of whether the Fort Worth appeals court erred when it said Pleasant Glades’ First Amendment rights regarding freedom of religion do not prevent the church from being held liable for mental distress triggered by a "hyper-spiritualistic environment."

A majority of the court agreed, with Justice David Medina writing that while Schubert’s secular injury claims might "theoretically be tried without mentioning religion, the imposition of tort liability for engaging in religious activity to which the church members adhere would have an unconstitutional 'chilling effect’ by compelling the church to abandon core principles of its religious beliefs."

Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson was among the justices that disagreed with the majorities' ruling, and in a dissenting opinion states that a church will simply have to claim a religious motive to deny a church member from bringing a claim against it.

"This sweeping immunity is inconsistent with United States Supreme Court precedent and extends far beyond the protections our Constitution affords religious conduct," Jefferson wrote. "The First Amendment guards religious liberty; it does not sanction intentional abuse in religion’s name."

Schubert testified in 2002 that she was cut and bruised and later experienced hallucinations as a result of the church members’ actions in 1996. She also said the incident led her to mutilate herself and attempt suicide. Schubert eventually sought psychiatric help.

But the church’s attorneys told a Tarrant County jury that Schubert’s psychological problems were caused by traumatic events she witnessed while with her parents who were serving as missionaries in Africa.

The church contended Schubert had "freaked out" about following her father’s life as a missionary and that she was acting out to gain attention.

After the 2002 verdict, Pleasant Glade merged with another congregation in Colleyville and now calls itself the Colleyville Assembly of God Church.