FOREST CITY — Claiming harassment and conspiracy, the Word of Faith Fellowship, Inc., and 19 members of the Spindale-based church have filed a federal lawsuit against the Rutherford County Department of Social Services, three of its employees and the chairman of the DSS Board.
The suit was filed Friday in the Charlotte office of the U.S. District Court.
DSS Director John Carroll, who was named in the suit individually and in his official capacity, said late Tuesday that neither the department or its attorney, Brad Greenway of Rutherfordton, had been served with the suit.
On Monday, both Carroll and Greenway said they could not comment on the suit until they had an opportunity to review the claims.
The lawsuit was filed by attorneys John Gresham of Charlotte and Eric Leiberman of New York on behalf of the church and some of its members as plaintiffs: Stephen and Cynthia Cordes; Ricky and Suzanne Cooper; Jennifer Lou Moore; Kim Waites; David Cameron; Jayne Caulder; Virginia Anne Cable; Denise Worley; Patricia Dolan; Jason and Tanja Gross; Marcia Whit-beck; Gilberto Carmona; Jay and Susan Plummer — all individually and on behalf of their minor children — and Cody Ryan Hawkins and Joveille Clark.
The suit names defendants Carroll and the DSS along with Child Protective Services supervisor Lynn Hoppes, caseworker Melanie Taylor Hunt and DSS Board Chairman Steve Wright. Hoppes and Taylor are named both individually and in their official capacities while Wright is only named in his capacity as chairman.
The 35-page filing claims the “(d)efendants — a county agency and its agents and employees — have violated, and continue to violate, plaintiffs’ rights freely to practice their religion and to raise their children within their chosen religious tradition.”
The suit also alleges DSS and its employees “have engaged in unconstitutional, systematic and repeated harassment” of WOFF and its members.
“Defendants have stated openly that their goal is to shut (the church) down, including by using the powers afforded to defendants by the state,” states the filing. “In particular, defendants repeatedly have ‘investigated’ plaintiffs based on the Biblically based and non-violent practice of ‘strong’ or ‘blasting’ prayer, and on the peaceful practice of ‘discipleship,’ consisting of quiet religious study, and have threatened to remove the children of (church) members from their parents because of these religious practices.”
The plaintiffs also claim “on numerous occasions defendants have forced parents to sign ‘Safety Assessments’ limiting the parents’ use of strong prayer; have attempted to turn children against their parents and (WOFF) and to lure them away so that they can be ‘deprogrammed’ by opponents of their religion; have searched, and seized children on the grounds of, the private church school without a warrant or parental consent; and have isolated children and then engaged in highly intimidating and psychologically traumatizing ‘interviews’ in which defendants attacked and ridiculed (WOFF) religious beliefs and practices and made inappropriate sexual comments, including to young children.”
The lawsuit also states the claim that “(d)efendants have conspired with former Church members, individuals and entities in the so-called ‘anti-cult‘ movement, and others in the local community to deprive plaintiffs of their rights.”
After the complaints are detailed, the filing describes beliefs of the “nondenominational, evangelical, charismatic Christian church” and practices of its private school.
“According to (WOFF) religious beliefs, strong prayer is a Biblically mandated religious practice, based on numerous Biblical references, which refers to any strong demonstration of the Holy Spirit, such as ‘all manner of prayer,’ Ephesians 6:18, including: supplication, petition, weeping, groaning, travail, crying out, praying in tongues, and shrill cries for Christ to be formed in you and to come against the works of the devil,” states the filing.
The filing also describes “a religious practice known as discipleship, which means one is trained or taught by God to become a disciple of Jesus Christ.
“During discipleship training, (WOFF) members spend time alone with God, pray, read scriptures, and listen to tapes containing religious teaching. Both (the school) and (the church facility) contain separate discipleship rooms for individuals in discipleship training. At (the school), discipleship training involves removing a child from the regular classroom setting due to disruptive behavior … During discipleship training, students are taught to get before God, inquiring of Him to change their lifestyle. This may be through prayer, Bible study or Biblical tapes on Christian lifestyle and values, in which students seek to let God show them what is wrong in their lives and let Him change their hearts to correct the situation. Contrary to false allegations by defendants, discipleship training does not involve ‘isolation’ from peers, friends, or family, but such contact may be limited during the in-school period of the discipleship training. Separately, parents may also seek to place additional limitations on their children’s contact with friends outside of school in response to bad behavior.”
Both WOFF and its members involved in the suit openly admit a belief and the use of corporal punishment or spanking, calling it Biblically mandated.
“Based on these Biblical mandates, (WOFF) believes that rebellion merits a spanking,” states the filing. “(WOFF) does not believe rebellion is driven out by the force of the rod, but that by obeying the word of God and putting faith in what God says, the heart of the child is changed. (WOFF) believes that spanking is more a spiritual act than a physical one. Therefore, (WOFF) teaches not to apply hard pressure with the paddle. Both the child and the adult performing the spanking are taught to cry out to Jesus and to mix faith with the spanking, asking God to change the child’s heart. After this act, the child should feel only the love of God from Jesus flowing through the person whom God is using for discipline.”
The filing states many claims of the practices and procedures used by DSS workers during investigations of child abuse by church members.
The claims begin in 1995 and continue through an ongoing court battle between DSS and church members Kent and Brooke Covington.
At the conclusion of the filing, the church and its involved members list several demands of the defendants including “to cease all investigations of plaintiffs based on allegations that children participated in the religious practices of prayer, including strong prayer, or discipleship; to conclude within 30 days all open investigations of plaintiffs based on allegations other than (WOFF) religious practices; … to expunge all records of abuse or neglect, including findings, notices, letters, registries, or databases, based on plaintiffs’ religious practices, including prayer, strong prayer, or discipleship; and to refrain from spending any public funds in connection with any of the above.”
The plaintiffs also demand a monetary award of damages in an amount to be determined at trial and attorneys fees, expenses, and costs incurred in bringing the action.
The filing from the church comes on the heels of an October ruling by District Court Judge Randy Pool which gave DSS custody of the children of Shana Muse. The children had been living with church members Kent and Brooke Covington.
The Covingtons and Muse are in an ongoing legal battle over Muse’s four children who lived with the Covingtons for just over a year after Muse left the church.
A custody battle ensued with DSS getting involved. DSS won a court ruling last month that removed Muse’s children from the Covingtons and placed them in DSS care.
Pool ruled the WOFF environment was abusive to children.
The Covingtons have appealed the ruling including requesting Pool’s order be stayed pending appeal which would allow the children to stay with the Covingtons.
Both Judge Pool and the North Carolina Court of Appeals have denied a stay. The Covingtons have appealed to the North Carolina Supreme Court for a stay.
The church’s leader, Jane Whaley, also is facing criminal charges of assault filed by an ex-member, Lacy Wien.
Wien filed the criminal complaint shortly after the October ruling in the Muse case, claiming that Whaley assaulted her when Whaley got upset about Wien’s desire to leave the church.
Whaley is scheduled to appear in court to face the charges on Dec. 19.