Judge sets deadlines in WOFF suit

The Digital Courier/August 25, 2004
By Jerry Stensland

Spindale -- A series of deadlines as well as a date for a potential trial have been set in the federal lawsuit brought by the Word of Faith Fellowship against the Rutherford County Department of Social Services.

If the case goes to trial, it would not be heard until November 2005, but several key deadlines were set for the next three to 12 months, including a required mediation to take place before the end of November this year.

The WOFF and several of its members have brought the suit alleging multiple civil violations including their freedom of religion.

They claim that the DSS has engaged in an intentional effort to deny the Spindale-based church and its members the freedom to practice their religion through what they say are sham child abuse investigations.

The DSS says the church engages in systematic practices which can constitute child abuse and any investigations completed were done so because of the agency's statutory requirement to investigate abuse allegations.

In October 2003, Judge Randy Pool ordered four children removed from the home of WOFF ministers Kent and Brooke Covington stating the church environment was abusive to children.

The church engages in unusual practices such as blasting where a group of people yell or grunt in an attempt to "cast out demons" from an individual.

The Covingtons, however, are not a party to the federal suit.

The church, 19 people and their children are the official parties in the suit.

The discovery phase of the suit, where both sides gather evidence including taking written and oral affidavits, was given a July 31, 2005, deadline by United State District Court Judge Lacy H. Thornburg.

The deadline to file motions, with two exceptions, was set for Sept. 1, 2005.

DSS, which is represented by Scott McClatchie of the Charlotte firm Womble, Carlyle, Sandridge & Rice, filed for a dismissal of the case, but was largely turned down by Thornburg.

In denying the motion to dismiss, Thornburg did not indicate whether any of the allegations set forth by WOFF were true. It only noted that if those allegations were ultimately proven true, they would constitute violations of law.

WOFF is represented by four attorneys from a New York law firm and John Gresham of the Charlotte firm Ferguson, Stein, Chamber, Adkins, Gresham & Sumter.

The New York firm has represented the Church of Scientology in the past.

In Thornburg's ruling denying the motion to dismiss by DSS, he did narrow the scope of the case somewhat.

In the original ruling, Thornburg dismissed the federal, but not state, claims on three of nine counts alleged by WOFF.

The dismissal was due to the qualified immunity which DSS workers have in carrying out their duties.

The WOFF attorneys asked for reconsideration on those points.

The DSS staff persons named in the suit were listed both as individuals and in their official capacity. Thornburg upheld the ruling for immunity, but only for the DSS people in their official capacity.

Immunity does not apply for the same people acting as individuals, which Thornburg clarified in the most recent ruling.

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