Controversial church sues N.C. social services agency

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/December 11, 2003
By Tim Whitmire

Charlotte, N.C. -- A Rutherford County church known for its controversial use of "blasting prayer" has sued the county Department of Social Services, alleging violation of its freedom of religion.

The lawsuit, filed Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court by lawyers for Spindale-based Word of Faith Fellowship, accuses Rutherford DSS of unconstitutional harassment of church members. It says that harassment results "from defendants' disapproval of, dislike for and class-based animus towards plaintiffs' lawful religious beliefs and practices."

The lawsuit lists as plaintiffs 19 adults who are Word of Faith members and parents of 25 children ranging in age from 2 to 17.

At the heart of the controversy are two church practices and their application to children. One is "strong" or "blasting" prayer, a high-volume form of prayer that Word of Faith members say is based on numerous biblical references.

Former church members have described blasting as a practice in which church members stand in a circle around an individual while praying loudly in an effort to drive demonic spirits from the subject.

The other is "discipleship," in which church members and children spend time in isolation, praying, reading Scriptures and listening to tapes of religious teachings.

Critics of the church and its practices argue that blasting prayer is a form of abuse and that discipleship training involves isolating children from friends and family.

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and an order declaring that blasting prayer and discipleship are religious practices that are protected from government interference and do not constitute abuse.

It also asks a federal judge to order DSS to cease all investigations based on allegations of strong prayer and discipleship and to conclude within 30 days all other open investigations of Word of Faith members.

In addition to the department, the lawsuit names as defendants county DSS director John Carroll, child protective services supervisor Lynn Hoppes and caseworker Melanie Taylor Hunt, as well as Steve Wright, chairman of the Rutherford Board of Social Services.

Carroll did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment, nor did Brad Greenway, a Spindale lawyer who has represented the Rutherford DSS in past court cases.

The lawsuit says the defendants have conspired with members of the community, former church members and people involved in the "so-called 'anti-cult' movement" to deprive church members of their rights.

By trying to limit the teaching and prayer in which Word of Faith members may engage, the lawsuit says, the county DSS has "unconstitutionally attempted to regulate plaintiffs' speech and association."

The lawsuit claims that since late last year, the Rutherford DSS has opened 15 investigations against Word of Faith members and the church's nursery but has failed to substantiate any allegations. All but two of the investigations remain open, the lawsuit said.

It also accuses DSS of failing to screen false accusations made against Word of Faith by former members who are under the control of an anti-cult movement -- "which itself often is driven by religious fundamentalism," according to the lawsuit.

The court document charges that DSS caseworker Hunt told the parents of Joveille Clark, who was then 17, earlier this year that her agency intended to take all Word of Faith children into DSS custody and to "lock up and close" and "padlock" the church.

The lawsuit alleges that several young children of church members have been so traumatized by questioning and threats by DSS workers that they required professional counseling.

And it claims that the Rutherford DSS repeatedly has violated the state of North Carolina's own rules about how to conduct abuse and neglect investigations.

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