The Rev. Dr. Ron Scates, interim senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in San Antonio, Texas, has been accused of violating his ordination vows by a member of Mission Presbytery, but those charges are believed to be in direct violation of a protection order issued by a judge in civil court.
According to a letter to the FPC-San Antonio congregation, Scates was informed of the allegations in a June 15 letter from Mission Presbytery. The allegations include:
(1) Scates “violated his promise to be governed by church polity,” and
(2) Scates “broke his promise to ‘further the peace, unity, and purity of the church.’”
Mission Presbytery has appointed a committee which will investigate the allegations and then make a recommendation to the presbytery as to what actions should be taken.
“If the investigating committee finds probable cause to support the accusations, it could bring disciplinary charges against Ron,” the letter said. “Mission Presbytery would then conduct a trial under the PCUSA’s disciplinary rules.”
Carmen Fowler LaBerge, president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee commented, “None of this should surprise anyone. This is how the process works. Mission Presbytery is following the rules laid out in the Book of Discipline. The presbytery is stuck between its own ecclesiastical mandates and the order of the civil court.”
Church property lawsuit filed
On May 11, FPC-San Antonio’s session voted unanimously to file a lawsuit in the civil courts to determine ownership of the church’s property. The constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) includes a trust clause that claims that all church property is held in trust for the PCUSA. That lawsuit filed on May 12 by FPC-San Antonio seeks a ruling on the validity of that claim.
The congregational letter said that the judge “signed an order restraining Mission Presbytery ‘and any persons or entities in active concert or participation with it’ from taking any action that could affect the property rights of First Presbyterian Church, including ‘initiating any disciplinary action against the ministers of the church…’ or otherwise ‘interfering with the normal duties and responsibilities of the officers, ministers, and employees of First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio.’”
“We believe Mission Presbytery’s letter is facially in violation of this order,” the letter continued.
Presbytery action ‘unnecessary and misdirected’
“The presbytery’s retaliatory action is unnecessary and misdirected but not unanticipated. We remain confident in the church’s position with respect to its property and that the action against Ron will be terminated in due course,” the letter read.
The church’s litigation committee hired Kent Krause, of the firm of Craddock, Davis and Krause in Dallas to act as co-counsel in the case along with Lloyd Lunceford, of the firm of Taylor, Porter, Brooks & Phillips, L.L.P., Baton Rouge, La. Lunceford is also working with the church on the declaratory judgment action. (Disclosure: Lunceford is an emeritus member of the board of the Presbyterian Lay Committee.)
Krause was the lawyer who defended the Rev. Joe Rightmyer, former interim pastor of Highland Park Presbyterian Church, when Grace Presbytery brought similar accusations against him. Rightmyer was stripped of his ordination when the presbytery’s Permanent Judicial Commission found him guilty on eight counts related to the process that resulted in the departure of Highland Park Presbyterian Church from the denomination. He chose not to appeal the PJC’s ruling.
LaBerge commented, “First San Antonio is well aware of what happened to Joe Rightmyer at Highland Park. Ron Scates is the pastor who brought Joe on. It was Ron’s departure from Highland Park that led to Joe serving as interim. This is a tangled web. I expect First San Antonio to win in secular court but I also expect the ecclesiastical charges to stick. Sadly, this is now the reality of the PCUSA.”
The letter to the FPC San Antonio congregation promises that “appropriate legal action” will be taken so that “the church can keep Ron as its interim senior pastor and protect the interests of this church.”