Judge rules Jericho Missionary Baptist's spat not in court's purview

Judge rules Jericho Missionary Baptist's spat not in court's purview

URBANA — An internal dispute within Jericho Missionary Baptist Church will have to be resolved without the intervention of the courts.

Champaign County Judge Jason Bohm dismissed a lawsuit filed earlier this year by ousted deacon Porter Halcrombe against the Champaign church, the Rev. Lekevie Johnson and three current church trustees.

In a written ruling this week, Bohm said the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which arises from constitutional freedom of religion protections, precludes the courts from having jurisdiction over an internal church dispute such as this one.

"The court has no doubt that people of good faith on both sides of this conflict care deeply about the Jericho Missionary Baptist Church," Bohm wrote.

"But there is also little doubt that the subject matter of this suit is about the polity, internal organization and ecclesiastical rule of the church — whether Johnson should be the pastor, whether Halcrombe should be considered a member of the church. As a result, this dispute lies outside of the court's jurisdiction."

Formerly the chairman of the deacon board that hired Johnson as pastor in 2009, Halcrombe was seeking to fire Johnson some five years later after he and other former church leaders took another look at Johnson's credentials.

Johnson continues to be pastor of the church, but Halcrombe was dismissed as a deacon and removed from his post as registered agent of the church.

Halcrombe's lawsuit set out the details of what became a several-years-long conflict within the church over leadership, membership and money issues, and it sought a judgment to clarify who current church members are, the constitution and bylaws of the church and the authority and employment of Johnson.

A motion to dismiss the lawsuit filed on behalf of Johnson and current trustees contended Halcrombe is no longer an active church member and lacked standing.

"We are accustomed in our society to turn to the courts to decide between two competing positions," Bohm wrote. "But religious entities hold a special, constitutionally-protected place in society."

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