Oklahoma Non-Lesbians Win $340,000

NewsPlanet/December 15, 1997

SUMMARY: 2 Oklahoma women won a lawsuit against a Pentacostal minister who couldn't tell the difference between lesbianism and backrubbing.

A Tulsa, Oklahoma jury on December 13 awarded $340,000 to two women for a minister's accusation from the pulpit that they were having a lesbian affair. The award included $20,000 each for slander, $150,000 each for invasion of privacy, and $2 each for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Rhonda Morrison and Cynthia Gass deny that they are lesbians, admitting only to giving each other therapeutic backrubs, and say they believe that homosexuality is wrong.

It was July 10, 1994 when pastor Ernest Bass made his accusation from the pulpit of his First United Pentacostal Church, he says to "extinguish the rumors and let the healing process begin." Bass had never discussed the matter with the women. He had previously provided pastoral counseling to Morrison's husband, Steve Martens, first because the couple were having sexual problems, then because Martens was seeking a divorce but didn't want to loose his own ordained status in the process. Bass had first suggested that Morrison might be a lesbian, and then told Martens that proof was necessary for the divorce to be accepted by the church. Martens hired a private detective to track Morrison with phone taps and video surveillance. Martens claims that when he confronted Morrison with his evidence, she confessed to the affair, but on the witness stand she denied having made any such confession. Martens settled the women's claim against him out of court.

The defense claimed that Bass' statements were true and so could not be slanderous, and also argued for "ecclesiastical immunity" based on a 1989 Oklahoma Supreme Court ruling that found that a church member was subject to its clerical discipline. The plaintiffs not only denied the allegations, but pointed out that the United Pentacostal Church did not have a history of pastoral admonishments from the pulpit and that the women were not members of the church (Morrison was its choir director but had not signed the church roster at the time of Bass' statements).

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