SEATTLE, WA – First Presbyterian Church of Seattle’s trustees have been the subject of repeated false, misleading and defamatory statements made by the Seattle Presbytery and its leader, according to a countersuit filed today by the church.
“The presbytery has tried to dress this up as a dispute about the operation of First Presbyterian Church of Seattle and has made many false statements about the church and its decision to leave the Presbytery,” said Brian DeFoe, attorney for First Presbyterian Church of Seattle. “But at its heart, this dispute is really about money. First Presbyterian Church of Seattle has property worth more than $20 million that the Seattle Presbytery wants to seize. The presbytery paid nothing for the property that the church’s congregation purchased in 1905 and has owned free and clear since then.”
The countersuit is part of an answer to litigation instigated by the Seattle Presbytery seeking to block the church from leaving the denomination. The two-part answer to the presbytery’s lawsuit tells the story of a deteriorating relationship and the presbytery’s ongoing and repeated interference in the affairs of First Presbyterian Church of Seattle.
This interference by the Seattle Presbytery was the primary reason that, last November 15, the First Presbyterian Church of Seattle congregation voted more than 90 percent in favor of leaving the presbytery and the national denomination, Presbyterian Church (USA), and seeking affiliation with another national Presbyterian denomination.
“The congregation overwhelmingly voted that First Presbyterian Church of Seattle is no longer affiliated with the Seattle Presbytery or the Presbyterian Church (USA),” DeFoe said. “They tried many times to reconcile with the Seattle Presbytery and restore that relationship, but the presbytery repeatedly refused. The Seattle Presbytery started this legal fight by filing a lawsuit against the church and they’ve been forced to respond to the false allegations and claims it makes.”
The overwhelming vote by the church’s congregation, which is allowed and protected by both the Washington and United States constitutions, resulted in the Seattle Presbytery instigating the legal action to which the church responded today. The presbytery’s litigation includes demonstrably false and defamatory claims about financial and other improprieties seeking to discredit the pastors and leaders of First Presbyterian Church of Seattle. It also attempts to justify the presbytery’s demand that the church turn over all of its more than $20 million in assets and property to the Presbytery, and the appointment of an interim pastor and new leadership to take over the running of the church. These claims have endangered the church’s relationship with a developer which had entered into a joint venture agreement to develop the church property into a mission-focused campus with public benefits including a smaller church, facilities from which the church could continue helping people in need and a public gathering space.
The Presbytery also launched an alternate website using the trademarked name of Seattle First Presbyterian, falsely claimed it owned the church property and has been purporting to be Seattle First Presbyterian in conducting business as First Presbyterian Church of Seattle in violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
“This is nothing more than an attempt by the Seattle Presbytery to take valuable property it had no part in in paying for and to which it has no legitimate claim,” DeFoe said. “It is using tactics dictated by the national denomination to try to block First Presbyterian Church of Seattle from disaffiliating and to claim the church’s property and assets.”
First Presbyterian Church of Seattle strenuously objected in 1981 to the national denomination’s efforts to insert a symbolic trust clause into the denomination’s constitution, under which clause the denomination now claims that its property and assets belong to the Seattle Presbytery and Presbyterian Church (USA). It never consented to giving the Seattle Presbytery or Presbyterian Church (USA) such an interest in its property, and blocked a more recent attempt by the presbytery to insert similar language into documents related to the joint venture development agreement for the property.
“The presbytery is attempting to cloud the real issues with smoke screens about religious doctrine, complex arguments about trust provisions to which First Presbyterian never agreed and archaic language about church governance,” DeFoe said. “The real issue is their desire to claim more than $20 million worth of property that doesn’t belong to them and take over a church that they mistreated so badly that its congregation voted overwhelmingly to leave the regional presbytery and the national denomination.”