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Ebenezer trial puts pulpit in spotlight

Jessica Cuffman • May 22, 2013 at 5:00 AM

A visiting judge will lean on man’s laws as he sorts out a civil case stemming from a deep divide in a Sandusky church.    

As for the laws of heaven, only God will know those answers. 

It proved difficult for members of Ebenezer Baptist Church to limit their answers to questions of law Tuesday, when they testified at a bench trial in Erie County Common Pleas Court.   

More than once, visiting Judge Dale Crawford had to remind witnesses they were on the stand — not at the pulpit — as they answered questions from attorneys representing both sides in this long-running debacle.

The two lawsuits stem from disagreements about the Pierce Street church’s now-completed $1.25 million expansion, as well as the church’s leadership under the Rev. Clayton Howard. 

Four church members who opposed Howard were voted out of the church in April 2012. But the “4” — Renee Brown, her husband Josiah Brown, Daryl Murphy and Nora Monegan — didn’t give up so easily. When they returned to Ebenezer the Sunday after their ousting, a church trustee called police to have them arrested for criminal trespassing.

They later returned to the property once more, to hold a vote to remove Howard from his position as pastor. The vote came as the church was celebrating the three-year anniversary of Howard’s arrival to Ebenezer. He’s from Memphis.   

Howard and his supporters responded by filing a lawsuit to keep the dissidents off church property. 

In turn, the “4” filed their own lawsuit to force the church to recognize the vote to oust Howard. They also want a new board of trustees and they want membership restored for the Browns, Murphy and Monegan. 

On Tuesday, more than 50 people packed into the often-noisy courtroom, as witnesses testified about a tumultuous year.

The central question at hand: Should the vote to oust Howard be recognized as legitimate church business?

Clearly passionate about their faith and their place of worship, it was near impossible for witnesses in the courtroom to limit testimonies to legal issues. 

“We raised our three sons there. We buried our dead there,” Renee Brown said when she took the stand. “Looking around here today, I see my brothers and sisters. And they have been good to us. I can’t believe we’re here today. It’s still unreal.”

Howard, too, took the stand.

“Who governs the church?” asked attorney Gerhard Gross, who represents the “4.”

“God,” Howard said, drawing a number “Amens” and head nods from people in the courtroom.

“And here on Earth?” Gross asked.

“The pastor,” Howard said.

It will be up to Crawford to make a decision on that one. He’ll have to cull testimony from four days of trial, and then review the church’s bylaws. Even then he might not issue an opinion on the matter — he could decide he doesn’t have jurisdiction. 

Howard and his attorneys have suggested that the matters in question are ecclesiastical and, as such, not a matter in which the courts can interfere.

“That will be resolved after all the evidence is in,” Crawford said Tuesday.

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