The Word of Faith Fellowship church filed a federal lawsuit Friday alleging that members' civil rights have been violated by the Rutherford County, N.C., Department of Social Services and individuals working for the agency.
The suit comes nearly two months after a judge allowed DSS to remove the four minor children of former WOFF member Shana Muse from the home of church minister Kent Covington and his wife, Brooke.
If the DSS victory appeared to have put WOFF on the defensive, the federal lawsuit makes clear the Spindale, N.C.-based church intends to stand its ground. The suit alleges that since 1995 DSS has "engaged in unconstitutional, systematic and repeated harassment" of WOFF and its members.
"The purpose of the lawsuit is to seek to enforce (the constitutional right of) the church and a number of parents and children to freely exercise their religious beliefs," said John Gresham, a Charlotte, N.C.-based attorney representing the church.
"It also provides information to show that this church -- a nondenominational, charismatic, evangelical Christian church -- is within the types of churches that practice their religion throughout this country."
Gresham noted that a number of WOFF members hold jobs, from banking to education, in the Rutherford County community.
Former members and DSS have said the church practice of "blasting," or loud prayer, is abusive, especially to children.
The suit calls blasting "biblically-based and non-violent."
Gresham said the church has become the subject of ridicule in the community and has suffered harassment from officials because it is "perceived as being sufficiently different."
He pointed to church members' rejection of some aspects of modern culture and added that WOFF is "one of few fully integrated churches in Rutherford County."
Numerous former members have said the church and its leader, Jane Whaley, seek to control many members by telling them where they can work, limiting their exposure to television and newspapers, placing them in group homes and making them listen to "blasting."
In the DSS case involving Muse's children, North Carolina District Court Judge Randy Pool found credence in those claims. In his findings, he concluded that WOFF leaders "attempt to exercise complete control over the mind, body and spirit of its members, both adults and children."
Gresham said the federal lawsuit does not attempt to overturn Pool's ruling. It has been appealed separately. But the suit would have DSS essentially leave WOFF alone in the future.
Along with Gresham, New York attorney Eric Lieberman is representing WOFF. Lieberman has represented the Church of Scientology over the years. Gresham said that to his knowledge the Scientologists have not helped to fund WOFF's suit.