Pair Awarded $340,000 in Slander Trial

Minister Told Congregation the Two Were Lesbians

Tulsa World/December 13, 1997
By Brian Barber

A civil jury awarded two Tulsa women $340,000 Friday night in a slander lawsuit involving a minister at the local First United Pentecostal Church who told his congregation in a worship service that the women were having a lesbian affair.

The 9-3 verdict came at 10:15 p.m. after four hours of deliberation. The civil trial for defendants -- the Rev. Ernest G. Bass, the First United Pentecostal Church, the Oklahoma District of the United Pentecostal Church International and its superintendent, Robert D. Whalen -- got under way two weeks ago, more than three years after the slander occurred. The suit also accused the defendants of intentional infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy.

Rhonda J. Morrison and Cynthia A. Gass each were awarded $20,000 for slander, $150,000 for invasion of privacy and $2 for intentional infliction of emotional distress.

"My clients feel wonderful about this verdict," defense attorney Kay Bridger-Riley said. "We feel very good about what this jury came back with."

Bridger-Riley had asked the jury for a total of $15 million during her closing argument.

"The money's not the important thing," she said after the verdict. "This jury gave Rhonda and Cynthia the vindication that they deserve."

Morrison and Gass, through their attorney, declined to comment Friday night.

The defendants and their attorney, Roger Williams, could not be reached for comment.

At a Sunday evening worship service on July 10, 1994, Bass told a congregation of about 90 people that Morrison, who was the church's music director at the time, and Gass, whom he did not identify by name, were involved in a lesbian affair.

Bass testified that he spoke about it to the congregation to "extinguish the rumors and let the healing process begin" and that as her minister he had the "right to rebuke" Morrison. Gass was not a member of the church.

The defense maintained that what Bass said was the truth and, therefore, could not be considered slander. The defense also maintained that Bass' announcement should receive "ecclesiastical immunity" under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In the 1989 court case Guinn vs. Church of Christ of Collinsville, the defense claimed the same immunity when a minister said in church that a female member had committed adultery. The plaintiff, Marian Guinn, originally won the case, but the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The court ruled that Guinn could quit the church but was subject to its discipline until she did so. The case was eventually settled out of court. Legal scholars interpreted the ruling to mean that a religion's disciplinary practices are constitutionally protected.

But that church had a history of making such announcements, Bridger-Riley said. No such history existed in the United Pentecostal Church, and Morrison wasn't even a member of the church at the time because she had not signed the roster that year.

Before Bass made the announcement, Morrison had been having sexual problems in her marriage to Steve Martens, who had gone to the minister for advice, according to testimony. Bass reportedly quizzed Martens about whether his wife might be a lesbian.

Martens, who also was a licensed minister, went back to Bass to ask for permission from the church to get a divorce, according to testimony. Martens told Bass that he thought his wife was involved in a lesbian affair. Bass reportedly told Martens that he had to get proof about the affair before a divorce could be sanctioned by the church. Otherwise, Martens' minister's license could be in jeopardy.

Martens hired a private detective to tap phones and use video surveillance to determine if Morrison was a lesbian, according to testimony. Bass said Martens confronted his wife and that she confessed the affair to her husband. With this account, Bass gave Martens approval for a divorce.

On the witness stand, Morrison said she has never confessed to a lesbian affair and that neither she nor her husband was contacted by Bass about what he planned to say in church. Morrison and Gass have both said they are only platonic friends and that they believe homosexuality is wrong.

The two women did give each other therapeutic back rubs because Morrison had suffered injuries in a car accident and needed them, Bridger-Riley said.

They were both clothed during the rubs.

A number of plaintiffs, including Martens and other church members who spread the allegations, settled out of court before the case went to trial.

District Judge Jane Wiseman withdrew the United Pentecostal Church International and its general superintendent, Nathaniel A. Urshan, and general secretary, Cleveland M. Becton, from the lawsuit this week, citing a lack of evidence against them.

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