Gospel church's lawsuit dismissed

NorthJersey.com/June 24, 2006
By John Chadwick

A Pequannock church's lawsuit against its critics appears to be nothing more than an effort to harass, intimidate and gain publicity, a federal judge said in a decision released Friday.

U.S. District Judge Harold A. Ackerman in Newark dismissed the suit by Gospel Outreach Christian Fellowship, ordered the church to cover the defendants' legal bills and suggested that the suit was payback for a lawsuit filed by an ex-member, who accuses the church of engaging in cult-like behavior.

"A review of the entire record ... suggests to this court that plaintiffs have used this as a vehicle for publicity and to intimidate and harass defendants in relation to the pending state-court action," Ackerman wrote.

The decision comes nearly a year after Gospel Outreach sued critics, accusing them of what it said was a pattern of harassment that made it difficult for the small congregation to survive.

The church said critics spread lies about the congregation, calling members' families and sending warning letters to other churches.

The defendants included the Hawthorne Gospel Church and three ministers at the Route 208 megachurch, as well as 11 other individuals who included former members of Gospel Outreach and relatives of members.

The case never made it to the discovery phase. Philip Elberg, an attorney for several of the defendants, argued for dismissal on the ground that the suit was erroneously filed under federal civil rights statutes that are used to sue the government.

The attorney for Gospel Outreach apparently concurred, and eventually sought voluntary dismissal.

The judge, while agreeing to dismiss, declared that the suit was brought on "baseless federal claims" and ruled that the defendants were entitled to legal fees.

Elberg estimated that the bill could run into the tens of thousands of dollars. He said he hoped the ruling would deter Gospel Outreach from suing in state court.

"The message that the judge is sending is that they better make darn sure that the lawsuit has a legal basis," Elberg said.

Gospel Outreach was represented by Brian W. Raum of Manhattan. He could not be reached for comment Friday.

The congregation's pastor, James R. Lethbridge, said he hadn't received a copy of the decision and couldn't comment.

Gospel Outreach is part of a small evangelical Christian movement that got its start at a Northern California commune in the early 1970s. The Pequannock congregation has about 30 members and meets in the American Legion Hall.

Lethbridge has said in the past that the congregation might seem unusual to outsiders because it's a close-knit, grassroots Christian community that lives by biblical precepts.

Critics say the congregation is abusive, exacts large sums of money from members and sparks rifts in their families.

One of the defendants said Friday he was pleased with the judge's ruling but despondent that his 28-year-old son is still a member of Gospel Outreach.

"When we call him, he won't answer the phone," said Angelo Faillace of Warren County. "There is no relationship right now because of this group."

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