LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — The Michigan Supreme Court is dipping a toe into the murky, tumultuous intersection of church independence and contract law.
The court will decide if it wants to get in the middle of a church dispute that goes back five years and ripped a church asunder.
The board of Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist Church on Grand Rapids’ southeast side fired its pastor after discovering financial irregularities in 2011.
That discovery would result in the Rev. Arthur Pearson pleading no contest in 2013 to embezzlement along with a church secretary. That plea included an agreement to repay $220,000.
But despite the felony conviction, the pastor claims the church board violated his employment contract and has sued.
Pearson’s attorney Jerry Ashford of Detroit, says the congregation of the church wanted to retain the pastor, despite the evidence that the pastor used church money for things like purchases at Victoria’s Secret, Macy’s and Electric Cheetah among other places.
“They ignored the vote of the congregation to retain the pastor,” said Ashford.
Some members left the church and followed Pearson to his new job as the spiritual leader of another Grand Rapids-area church, while others stayed at Pilgrim’s Rest as it found a new pastor.
A Kent County judge decided the case about the pastor’s termination involved church policy and the courts should stay out of it. The appeals court agreed.
Next week, the state Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether they should hear the case.
Attorney for the pastor says the court should take the case because it is simply a matter of the board violating an employment contract and that should stand regardless of who is involved.
“Otherwise, no contract in any religious institution in Michigan would have any effect,” Ashford said.
Church attorney Bernard Schafer says even if the decision of the church board was not protected by the constitutional separation of church and state, Pearson violated his contract by embezzling from the church and was rightfully terminated.
Attorney Bruce Block specializes representing churches in civil court, a specialty he says is growing as churches move away from mainline denominations that had its own system of governance and form independent congregations without oversight.
He says he is surprised the high court is looking at this case and expects the court to decline to hear it.
“Most cases involving hiring and firing of ministers fall under the religious governance and most courts will typically abstain from wading into those conflicts,” Block said
But this is a case that has dragged on in the courts, and lawyers involved say everyone wants resolution.
“This is a sad situation. It seems like the state would have an interest in resolving this in a peaceful manner which is bringing some closure to it,” Block said.
Even as this case is moving to Lansing, the factions of the church congregation have another case in Kent County Circuit Court regarding offerings made to the church and who the money belongs to.
The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments next week and then decide if it will if it wants to take on this thorny issue.
“It’s really too bad, because clearly in the Bible it calls for people to sit down with their brothers and not go to the civil court system,” Block said.**Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Pearson’s name in one instance. The error has been corrected.