Lawsuit against Nashville church dismissed

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by about 50 current or former church members of Two Rivers Baptist Church against pastor Jerry Sutton and church leaders.

Davidson County Chancellor Claudia Bonnyman ruled Jan. 4 that she didn't have jurisdiction in the lawsuit, which sought, among other things, Sutton's removal as pastor as well as the removal of other "directors and officers" in the Nashville church. The suit also asked the court to "require" that a church business meeting be held to address specific issues, and it requested court costs.

In her ruling, Bonnyman did give the plaintiffs, as members of the church, access to records, including meeting minutes and financial documents.

Larry Crain, who represented the church in the case and is a senior counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice, said he was "pleased" with the ruling.

"It's an overwhelming victory for not only this church but for churches across the state," Crain said at a news conference. "... This case was being watched around the country by a number of other churches. We're pleased that this sets a useful precedent ... that courts should not interfere in the self-governance of a church."

Such interference, he said, would have been an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment's free exercise clause.

The lawsuit claimed that Sutton, pastor there for 21 years, and other church leaders "misapplied, misappropriated, and mishandled the finances" of the church and that they "intentionally and purposely" prevented the church from being governed according to the church's constitution and bylaws.

One specific allegation involved a wedding reception for Sutton's daughter allegedly paid for by the church. Sutton told Baptist Press in August the church paid for only half of the food, and only because staff members felt it was important to invite everyone in the church and, therefore, to help the Sutton family defray some of the costs. The appropriate committees approved the church's involvement, he said. Once the reception's financing became controversial, Sutton said, a church member voluntarily reimbursed the church for the costs.

"We're just grateful that it's over," Sutton said at the news conference following the court's ruling. "... For the majority of the church it's just been a distraction. We have had some people—very wonderful people—who left because they didn't like the conflict.... I think that God is going to give us the grace to get past this, and our church is going to be stronger."

In October, after the lawsuit was filed, the church voted, 79-21 percent, to affirm Sutton as pastor.

Peggy Lewis, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the judge's ruling does not end the issue.

"We're going to the church and we're going to get to see the records, and that's what we wanted," she told WKRN television. "That's what we asked for. I'm delighted."

Sutton, former first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the church has nothing to hide regarding its finances.

"I have no unilateral decision-making with respect to the finances," he said. "We have a budget and finance ministry team who sets the budget each year. We have a human resources ministry team that supervises all of our personnel policies and everything that has to do with finances with respect to the staff. Also, we have what we call a love offering for Jesus team that gives oversight to our missions giving. Nothing is done apart from those groups."