Rutherfordton, NC -- Amid ongoing custody battles and multiple investigations by the Department of Social Services, the Spindale-based Word of Faith Fellowship was hit with another legal challenge:
Former WOFF member Holly Hamrick has filed suit against the church for what she describes as false imprisonment and for treatment that resulted in "severe mental and emotional distress."
Hamrick, 23, is taking part in a counseling program at the Ohio-based Wellspring Retreat, which bills itself as "the nation's only residential treatment facility for recovering cult victims."
Hamrick and other former members of WOFF describe the church as a cult.
They say that church leadership exerts a rigidly controlling influence over members -- from placing them into group homes to steering them into jobs mainly at companies owned by church members.
Hamrick's suit names as defendants the Word of Faith Fellowship, Incorporated; church leader Jane Whaley; and Kim R. Waites, with whom Hamrick lived and worked at the Belk Department Store in Forest City. She is suing each defendant for $10,000 for actual and punitive damages.
"I feel like they've damaged me," Hamrick said. "I've probably been through six months worth of treatment. They did a number on me, that's for sure."
Hamrick's suit, filed in Rutherford County by attorney Peter E. Lane, describes a harrowing journey from initial contact with church members in early 2001 to her decision to leave the church a year ago.
Life for Hamrick in WOFF brought emotional highs, with her entry into the group marked by an intense outpouring of love and friendship, contrasted by humiliation and rebukes in the form of "blasting" -- a loud, screaming prayer that, according to Hamrick, caused her to cough and gag.
Hamrick's suit also charges that she was told by Waites, a leader in the church, to apply for a job at Belk, where Waites and other WOFF members were employed.
Hamrick claims that Waites told her to lie on her application so that the store's management would not know Hamrick was living in Waites' home.
A Belk's store manager refused to comment on the matter.
Attempts to reach Waites were not successful, and a message left for Jane Whaley was not returned.
According to the suit, Waites and WOFF attempted to control contact with Hamrick's mother and stepfather, who live in Rutherfordton.
"When permitted, the plaintiff had to meet her mother and stepfather at a restaurant designated by (Waites)," the suit alleges.
Hamrick said she hopes her lawsuit will bring changes to the church that once consumed so much of her life.
"I made relationships in the group, and I'm concerned about what I'm seeing going on," she said. "I can't sit back and be quiet when I see abuse going on. A lot of people didn't see Waco coming or Jonestown coming."
Two DSS investigations into the treatment of children in WOFF are ongoing.
A custody case involving former church member Shana Muse is pending, as well. Kent and Brooke Covington, described by former members as leaders in WOFF, are trying to win custody of Muse's four children.
WOFF also has been at the center of earlier custody battles and an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.
To Hamrick's knowledge, her suit is the first attempt by a former member to win damages from WOFF or its leaders.
Duke University law professor Jeff Powell said churches are afforded certain protections by the Constitution, but there have been successful tort claims brought against churches. He pointed to cases in which religious groups have been sued over the practice of "shunning" or "freezing out" former members.
"There's no general reason why groups of people commit a tort, you can't sue just because it's a religious group," he said, adding that he's not familiar with WOFF or with Hamrick's suit.