Two Rivers Baptist Church faction sues for files
By SHEILA WISSNER
Two Rivers Baptist Church leaders are blocking access to financial records that could show whether funds have been misappropriated, some members of the church say in a lawsuit.
The lawsuit filed Friday in Davidson County Chancery Court is the latest in a struggle pitting a faction of one of Nashville's largest congregations against its senior pastor, the Rev. Jerry Sutton, who narrowly lost a bid for the presidency of the national Southern Baptist Convention last year.
The faction wants to oust Sutton, whom it views as an authoritarian who has misspent church funds on items such as trips and his daughter's wedding reception.
Sutton's supporters say the pastor has done nothing wrong and that all expenditures, such as the portion of the reception paid by the church, were approved by church committees.
"Each of the issues addressed in this lawsuit already have been thoroughly discussed in open meetings with the membership," said Larry Crain, senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, who is representing the church and its leaders. "They have been resolved as far as we are concerned."
54 file lawsuit
The lawsuit filed by 54 church members seeks access to church records under Tennessee laws covering access to records of nonprofit groups.
In a letter attached to the lawsuit, the church members demanded the right to review and copy records such as membership lists, budgets, expense records and credit card statements.
But Crain said in a letter refusing their request that they had no right to the records given the separation of church and state, as well as constitutional rights to privacy of members whose names are on church rolls.
"Given the inflammatory nature of the false and defamatory accusations leveled by certain individuals over the last several weeks, it is clear that your underlying motive for gaining access to these records is a calculated effort to inflict even greater injury to those in church leadership and on the church body as a whole,'' Crain wrote.
According to the lawsuit, members had called for a meeting to air their grievances, but church leaders had refused. Members believe Sutton and other church leaders "misapplied, misappropriated and mishandled the finances" of the church, the lawsuit says, and church leaders have ignored the church constitution and bylaws.
In addition to Sutton, the lawsuit names two pastors who work under Sutton, several employees and deacons, and the church.
Attorney Mark Freeman, who is representing the church members who are suing, declined to comment, saying it was a matter between church members and the pastor.
Under Sutton's leadership, the church has grown in prominence in the Southern Baptist Convention. A 3,300-seat worship center was built during his 22-year tenure.
See also: "Baptist Pastor Under Scrutiny" by the Associated Press, 8/14/2007