The civil jury trial for defendants the Rev. Ernest G. Bass, the church, its governing organizations and other church officials got under way this week in Tulsa County District Court, more than three years after the alleged slander occurred.
The suit also accuses the defen emotional distress and invasion of privacy.
Rhonda J. Morrison, the music director, and Cynthia A. Gass, whom Bass reportedly referred to as Morrison's lover but did not identify by name, are seeking an unspecified amount in damages, citing emotional, physical and financial harm, their attorney said.
"They are devastated by this situation," attorney Kay Bridger-Riley said.
"These women are not lesbians. What Brother Bass did was assume something that he had absolutely no proof of and then tell the world." At an evening worship service Sunday, July 10, 1994, Bass allegedly told a congregation of about 90 people that Morrison and Gass were involved in lesbian activity.
Bass testified in court that he spoke about it to the congregation to "extinguish the rumors and let the healing process begin" and that he had the "right to rebuke" Morrison as her minister, court records show.
The defense maintains that what Bass said was the truth and, therefore, cannot be considered slander, records show.
And in a recently filed document, the defense claims that in today's time, it is not slander to call someone a homosexual "given the great strides that society has made in accepting homosexuals."
The defense also maintains 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 exists in the United Pentecostal Church.
There is also doubt about whether Morrison was still a member of the church at the time because she had not signed the church's roster that year, Bridger-Riley said.
Defense attorney Roger Williams, who is representing Bass, the local church, the Oklahoma District of the United Pentecostal Church International and its superintendent, Robert D. Whalen, declined to comment.
Defense attorney Robert Redemann, who is representing the United Pentecostal Church International and its general superintendent, Nathaniel A. Urshan, and General Secretary Cleveland M. Becton, did not return phone calls about the case.
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, records show. Bass reportedly quizzed Martens about whether his wife might be a lesbian.
Martens, who was a licensed minister, went back to Bass to ask for permission from the church to get a divorce, records show. 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 granted to protect his minister's license. Martens hired a private detective to tap phones and use video surveillance to determine if Morrison was a lesbian, records show. Bass said Martens confronted his wife and that she allegedly confessed to the affair to him.
With this account, Bass gave Martens the go-ahead for a divorce. Bridger-Riley said Morrison has never confessed to a lesbian affair and that neither she nor her husband were contacted by Bass about what he planned to say in church. Martens testified to that in court.
Bridger-Riley also said none of the materials proved that her clients were involved in an affair and that a videotape that supposedly captured two women in an embrace was destroyed by Bass, who feared a lawsuit. Morrison and Gass are only friends, the attorney said. They are both religious and 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, but nothing more than that ever happened, Bridger-Riley said.
"They're making a tremendous leap from a back rub to lesbian activity and, in a church like that, that label will never go away," she said. Bridger-Riley said that leap was made by a religious organization that is blatantly ``homophobic'' and naive about sexual issues.
Defense attorneys are set to call several witnesses who will supposedly testify to the nature of the relationship between Morrison and Gass. The trial, being heard by District Judge Jane Wiseman, is expected to last more than two weeks.