Brother against Brother

Culture | RELIGION: A church dispute in Fresno lands in a civil court-and could set a precedent for government meddling in ecclesiastical matters

Issue: "George W. Bush: Gut check," April 24, 2004

THE FIRST TIME CAROL Rodriguez entered the Cross Church in Fresno, Calif., she was an infant. Today, she is president of the church board. A member for more than 40 years, she has never known another congregation.

Clarence and Irene Weslowski, Cross Church members for 60 years, knew Mrs. Rodriguez when she was a baby, the daughter of a friend. Today, the Weslowskis know her as president of the board that voted to terminate their memberships in the church.

The Weslowskis and Mrs. Rodriguez are just three of the people involved in a brewing church split, a tragic tear in fellowship that has the camel of government poking its nose into the tent of the church. And not only at the Cross Church. If a Fresno County Superior Court judge's order in the resulting lawsuit stands on appeal, the camel could inch its way into the tent of the church universal.

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Superior Court Judge J.N. Kapetan in January ordered the Cross Church board to reinstate members it terminated in September. The order drew gasps from legal observers, who saw it as a startling example of judicial arrogance. Robert Schmalle, attorney for the church, says his clients terminated certain members on biblical grounds. The reinstatement order, he contends, strikes at the very heart of the First Amendment ban on government intrusion into ecclesiastical matters.

But Joseph Arnold, who represents ousted church members, argues that the case isn't an ecclesiastical matter, but a corporate one: As a California nonprofit corporation, the church board violated its state-mandated constitution and bylaws, illegally booting the Weslowskis and others in an effort to silence dissent. His clients had to choose between going away quietly and fighting to remain in the church. The civil courts were their only recourse, he says, and the judge's order seeks to protect the plaintiffs' "property rights" in the church.

At the heart of the controversy is the gradual evolution of the church itself, and a newer pastor named Sam Freshwater. A small band of German immigrants from Russia organized the Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church, later called simply the Cross Church, in 1892. For more than half a century, the congregation, which despite its Lutheran name operated independently of any denominational hierarchy, maintained a liturgical tradition and a fondness for old ways. As recently as 40 years ago, men and women still sat on separate sides of the church, while the minister, clad in formal robes and ensconced in a high pulpit, delivered all sermons in German. In the 1960s, the church boasted nearly 2,000 members, according to Mrs. Rodriguez, making it one of the largest churches in Fresno.

But times changed and the church changed with them. As ethnic lines in Fresno blurred, the church replaced German-language services with English ones. As feminism altered attitudes about women's roles, the church dropped its gender-separate seating arrangement. Then, in the mid-1990s, the church launched a contemporary worship service that deemphasized creeds and liturgical prayers. For the benefit of older members, many of whose parents and grandparents helped found the church (and some of whom are now plaintiffs in the pending lawsuit), the church retained a traditional worship service.

But in 2002, the congregation called as senior pastor Rev. Sam Freshwater, who made changes that older members didn't like. For example, the Cross Church had always baptized infants by sprinkling, but the new pastor refused to baptize infants, and would christen or "dedicate" them. A rumor even emerged-untrue according to Mrs. Rodriguez-that the high pulpit cherished by older members was to be ripped out and replaced by a baptismal tub. Meanwhile, Pastor Freshwater also chafed at wearing clerical robes during the traditional service, Mrs. Rodriguez told WORLD. And he preferred to be down on the sanctuary floor when preaching, not perched in the high pulpit.

Those and other perceived offenses led the church's Men's Society last August to mount a petition drive in an effort to convene a special congregational meeting. Among other things, the men raised concerns about how Rev. Freshwater had left his position as senior pastor at a local Mennonite Brethren church. He had resigned in 1999 under mutual agreement with church leaders, over "performance style" issues, according to Bob Heinrich, church moderator of Bethany Mennonite Brethren church. "Sam will be Sam. He doesn't always agree with everybody," Mr. Heinrich told WORLD. This resignation, Mrs. Rodriguez said, was not made known to the congregation before they voted to call Rev. Freshwater as their pastor.

The Cross Church's constitution states that Mrs. Rodriguez, as executive board president, shall call a special meeting within 30 days of receiving a petition such as the one submitted by the Men's Society. Mrs. Rodriguez didn't call such a meeting, but instead determined that the Men's Society's concerns would be better evaluated under a different provision in the church's procedural manual. On Aug. 27, 2003, she convened the church's pastoral review committee. The committee, she told WORLD, carefully examined each claim by the petitioners, and found them all to be without merit.


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