DSS answers Word of Faith lawsuit

The Daily Courier/February 18, 2004
By Jerry Stensland

Spindale -- Attorneys for the Rutherford County Department of Social Services are asking a federal court to throw out a case filed against DSS by the Word of Faith Fellowship.

The motion for dismissal was filed last week in response to the a civil rights lawsuit the WOFF filed against DSS alleging, among other things, religious discrimination.

DSS has investigated a number of claims of child abuse at the controversial Spindale church. Those claims have often revolved around the religious practices of the church which include blasting, a loud prayer designed to exorcise demons and the use of corporal punishment.

The WOFF suit claims that DSS violated its constitutional rights to the free practice of religion by conducting the investigations in such a way as to interfere with WOFF members' rights.

DSS Director John Carroll said the request to have the case dismissed is the right thing to do.

"We are certainly in agreement with everything he stated in the motion to dismiss," said Carroll about attorney Scott MacLatchie's filing.

MacLatchie works for the firm Womble, Carlisle, Sandridge & Rice in Charlotte.

Carroll said his staff was simply doing what it is required to do and there is no bias.

"We've treated any case involving the Word of Faith like we treat any other case, that's why we have policies," said Carroll. "We acknowledge the fact that everything is not going to be absolutely perfect. No one is perfect. If someone wants to affect the way we do business, then they need to do that through the state legislature, not directly with us."

DSS has a statutory requirement to fully investigate any allegation of child abuse.

It is that requirement that MacLatchie says overrides any claim by WOFF of religious discrimination as well as most of the other claims in the case.

"The protection of the First Amendment does not insulate a person from investigations of abuse and neglect. DSS is obligated to investigate," said MacLatchie. "They (WOFF and their attorneys) would have to acknowledge that DSS has a right to investigate even if they are a quote-unquote church."

In addition to the free exercise of religion, WOFF is claiming loss of rights to familiar relations, unreasonable searches and seizures, violation of due process and a civil rights conspiracy.

The 19-page motion for dismissal delineates reasons to counter each of WOFF's nine general claims against DSS.

Case law from the Fourth Circuit federal court, where this case is being heard, is cited.

"The Free Exercise Clause does not give the citizen having religious scruples an absolute right to escape the burdens of otherwise valid neutral laws of general applicability," the motions reads in quoting a 2001 case.

"The courts have repeatedly rejected free exercise challenges to governmental investigations into alleged excessive corporal punishment of children, occurring both on and off church property," the motion continues.

The motion says DSS workers have "qualified immunity" when investigating allegations of abuse.

MacLatchie says it will likely be several months before a decision on the motion to dismiss is reviewed by the court.

WOFF attorneys will have an opportunity to respond to the motion to dismiss and DSS can then respond to that filing before the case is reviewed.

MacLatchie said the vast majority of civil cases before the federal court are decided based only on the filings, no hearings are held and no jury is seated.

WOFF is represented by John Gresham of Charlotte and Eric Lieberman and David Goldstein of New York.

Lieberman has represented the Church of Scientology for many years in similar cases involving the limits of religious freedom.

The lawsuit is one of a number of recent legal proceedings involving the WOFF. Church co-founder and spiritual leader Jane Whaley is scheduled to be in court March 3 to face a charge of misdemeanor assault.

Former WOFF member Lacy Wien has accused Whaley of assaulting her over the course of a lengthy meeting which resulted from Wien's threat to leave the church and have a relationship with her now husband, Ruben.

Wien also has a pending civil suit against Whaley and other church members for what Wien says was years of physical and emotional abuse. That case is expected to go to trial in September.

The WOFF has been under scrutiny from the courts, DSS and the media since 1995 when a six-month Daily Courier investigation and Inside Edition story revealed some of the unusual practices of the church.

Approximately 400 people in Rutherford County are church members, most of whom live in multi-family homes, some with over 20 people. Church members rarely socialize with non-church members and, according to court testimony from former members, are required to regularly "lock-in" with household leaders about their location and activity at all times.

Many church members work in businesses owned or operated by other church members including two construction companies, a furniture store, a plastics company, a real estate business and several restaurants.

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