Suit accuses congregation of ‘brainwashing’

For Fort Lauderdale church, quick dismissal would be a spring break

LOUISVILLE – Angus Walton, a commissioned lay pastor, was surprised to learn that his congregation had been sued.

One day a process server showed up at the door of the Sunset Presbyterian Church, a redevelopment congregation on the edge of Fort Lauderdale’s inner city, and handed the church secretary a summons.

That was surprising enough, but the real mind-boggler was the nature of the complaint: Sunset Presbyterian is accused of brainwashing people with Jesus.

Why Sunset Pres? Walton has no idea. “I wish I knew,” he says, in a Scottish brogue purring with r’s. “I try very hard every Sunday to convince people that Jesus is Lord and Savior; if that’s brainwashing, so be it. I knew nothing about this a-tall.”

Walton says he has no memory of anyone of the complainant’s name who had come to one of Sunset’s Sunday services, in English or Spanish. He doesn’t remember any angry phone calls. He doesn’t recall any fussing about the theology of a sermon or the conduct of worship.

Things had been going very well. A 36-member Hispanic congregation that had been using Sunset’s facilities recently joined the larger congregation, pushing membership to nearly 100 and Sunday attendance to about 120.

Walton, a financial executive in his former life, is fluent in Spanish, having worked in Peru for 10 years. But he says he doesn’t know much about brainwashing. In English or Spanish.

The Presbytery of Tropical Florida has asked the Broward County Circuit Court to dismiss the lawsuit, arguing that the case is frivolous and interferes with the free exercise of religion, a right guaranteed by both the state and federal constitutions.

Preparing and filing the motion for dismissal cost $900, which presbytery Executive Arlene Gordon finds less than amusing.

The civil case was filed in mid-January by an apparently indigent woman. The process server told a secretary at Sunset Presbyterian that he had summonses for several other churches in the neighborhood.

According to the circuit clerk’s office in Fort Lauderdale, the plaintiff filed 11 lawsuits between Jan. 5 and Feb. 17. The defendants include five other churches, the Bush administration, Northern Ireland, the People’s Republic of China, a local television station and a medical center.

Walton first became acquainted with Sunset in 1987, when he was appointed to a presbytery task force on the future of the then-dwindling congregation. He’s been a commissioned lay pastor there for over two years and thought his ministry consisted of washing away sin.

But, apparently, at least one person thinks he’s washing away much more.

“I find it quite amusing,” he says.

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