Sometimes a conspiracy theory isn’t merely a theory. Congregations embroiled in litigation with their presbyteries over church property have long suspected that legal strategies were being orchestrated nationally. However, since the revelation of “the Louisville Papers” in September 2006, verifiable proof was hard to find. Not anymore.
The sanctions recently imposed by a civil court in the case involving the 20-member Carrollton Presbyterian Church in New Orleans and the Presbytery of South Louisiana provides ample evidence and implicates individuals and councils from the presbytery, to the synod, to the Office of the General Assembly.
The judge’s language could not be more damning: The presbytery acted “in bad faith” and “advanced frivolous arguments in support of a claimed right it knew had no legal or evidentiary support.” And why exactly did the presbytery behave so badly? Because it was encouraged to do so from the Synod of the Sun and the denomination’s lead attorney in Louisville.
The monetary sanctions ($390,000 that the presbytery must now reimburse Carrollton for legal expenses) may very well bankrupt the presbytery. But it is the non-financial sanction (the unsealing of 441 emails) that is potentially catastrophic. If one word spoken in private by a celebrity chef decades ago can undo a cooking empire, imagine what overtly racial, sexist and regionally pejorative statements exchanged among denominational employees might do to the careers and reputations of those involved.
Those participating in the email exchange related to the case may have assumed those were covered by some kind of legal “privilege.” But what you say when you think no one else is looking reveals a great deal about your character. What is done in the dark is, as the Scriptures tell us, always brought to light. According to the court, the conspiracy involved the PCUSA Office of the General Assembly’s constitutional services director, the Rev. Mark Tammen, attorneys from a firm in New York that provides services to the denomination on a variety of advocacy issues, and the Presbytery of South Louisiana.
There are others who will bear some “guilt by association.” In October 2010, the members of the presbytery debated the question of continuing the lawsuit against Carrolton on the floor of their presbytery meeting. Facing huge legal bills and a growing sense that the case had no merit, presbyters sought to end the suit. However, the matter was ultimately referred to the one person who benefited from the lawsuit’s continuance: The presbytery’s attorney.
The legal judgment will have to be paid by the presbytery. The presbytery may have sufficient assets to cover it themselves by selling real property it owns — including an office complex and campground. Or, the presbytery’s attorney may have malpractice insurance that covers such a judgment. If those prove insufficient, the presbytery could appeal to the Synod of the Sun, which in turn likely will appeal to the Office of the General Assembly, which is funded by per-capita dollars collected from across the denomination. It’s ultimately very difficult in a highly connectional system to not find oneself “involved” even if you seek to remain independent from the fray.
Some have suggested that because this ruling comes from Louisiana and Louisiana has some idiosyncratic legal realities, this judgment does not create a precedent nor would it be applicable if the same shenanigans were proved out in another state. However, the case law relied upon in the judgment is federal, not state specific. So, presbyteries nationwide would be wise to take this ruling seriously.
No matter what happens going forward, two things can be said:
- Presbyteries should take heed — the hierarchical powers-that-be may seduce you into lawsuits they know you cannot win for purposes that have nothing to do with the health and future of the witness of Christ in your geographical region. Principled, honest, bi-lateral, grace-filled negotiation is always better than litigation when it comes to matters in the church. And,
- The reputation of the PCUSA has been irreparably sullied in a very public way — which does not serve Christ or the advancement of His Kingdom purposes in the world.
Oh, and the next time you hear a conspiracy theory remember, they’re not all just theories.