1. Archive

Church's battle fought in the courts

In Florida vs. William Davis and Angela Sweet, church and state find themselves on the same side in a case that grew from a deep schism at Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

After a large faction of the congregation voted to oust Davis' father _ the Rev. L. P. Davis _ from the pulpit in 1989, services became so volatile that St. Petersburg police officers attended every Sunday, just to keep the peace.

"As the weeks went by, we went out there to make sure they made it through alive," Officer Dan Carvin told a jury on Tuesday. "It was total anarchy."

After the pastor was fired, he refused to leave _ saying the firing was illegal. So each Sunday, he kept trying to preach.

Those who wanted him gone sometimes banged on pots and pans while he spoke. Once an elderly woman came after him with a stick. One side had a megaphone, the other had a boombox.

"Whoever made it to the pulpit first got the microphone, had the loudest voice and took over the service," Carvin said.

A year after it all began, the pastor's side tried to take over for the last time and wound up charged with disturbing a religious assembly.

Now three years later _ even though the case was once thrown out by a judge _ Davis and Sweet face a jury to determine where their freedoms of speech and religion end and where state law begins.

Seeking a voice

At noontime on July 15, 1990, when tempers were as hot as the summer air, the congregation locked the sanctuary doors and attempted to hold a service in the parsonage because the pastor was evicted from there and could not attend legally.

The service began with an invocational prayer and a hymn and William Davis, with his powerful voice, walked in singing a different hymn. Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross, he thinks it was.

As Davis got louder and louder, the congregation began to quiet. Soon, he had overpowered them. Members of the congregation say he then began yelling at them, telling them voting out his father was wrong and they would burn in hell for it.

"Then in the middle of their prayer, he said, "You're ignorant. You're lesbians, you're faggots,' " prosecutor Patty Cullen told the jury during her opening statement on Tuesday. ". . . That's what he's saying as people are trying to pray."

Davis then was escorted out by police, and Sweet, the pastor's granddaughter, stepped inside.

"I told them they were my brothers and sisters and I loved them," she told a reporter. "And I told them what they were doing was wrong."

Parishioners elaborated on the stand. They testified that she wailed, making howling noises like they had never heard, and told them what they were doing was "false prophecy."

At that point, the congregation _ led by Henry Webb Jr. _ gave up and left. The congregation later pressed charges against Sweet and Davis, who were charged with a misdemeanor each. Carvin said he felt the charge was apt because this time, the congregation was calm _ not its usual "madhouse" _ and the service was disrupted.

Bjorn Brunvand, a Clearwater lawyer, took Sweet's case for free because he thinks the charge is a disgrace.

"It doesn't make any sense," he said. "The justice system is crumbling because of money problems and here they are spending thousands to prosecute members of a church for speaking out where they had a right to be. It's unbelievable."

As the trial progressed Tuesday, Sweet held her Bible, looking serene and praying from time to time. At times, Davis shook his head at testimony.

Sweet's other attorney, Assistant Public Defender Mike McMillan, and Davis' attorney, Tampa lawyer Eric Gruman, pleaded with the jury to remember the principles that America was founded on.

"She was saying we're all God's children _ we must get along," McMillan said. "Now she sits in a court of law being prosecuted by her government in violation of her every right under the Constitution and its amendments.

"Do not brand this deeply religious lady with the disturbance of the house of God. She's not guilty."

A case history

About a year ago, County Judge Thomas B. Freeman threw out the case, and in doing so, declared the statute unconstitutional as it applied to them.

In his ruling, Freeman said the law was designed to keep outsiders from disrupting religious groups and holding them up to public ridicule, hatred or scorn.

The law was not clear, he said, and did not allow participants to know when their comments or actions might offend or disturb others in the congregation.

Freeman quoted the "founding fathers" and the freedoms of speech and religion in his order. He also said that the case, as well as the presence of taxpayer-supported officers at services, seemed at odds with the separation of church and state doctrine.

The state appealed Freeman's decision and the appellate court upheld the law, reinstating the case.

So prosecutor Lynn Flagler asked potential jurors how they felt about the church and state issue and whether they thought the state should not be involved in such a case. But it only mattered in selecting a jury.

"We have the higher court telling us that the state can intercede in this case," she said.

Flagler also tried to choose jurors who agreed that although Americans have the right to free speech and religion, there are limits to those rights.

"Not the Christian way'

If Sweet and Davis are sure of anything, it's that they are right _ no matter what happens.

"I did nothing wrong," Davis said. "By silencing their pastor, they had no power."

Davis says the faction that voted his father out had no authority to do so. Under the bylaws, they broke the rules of the church, he said.

In addition, he said, the eviction and restraining order keeping his father away from the parsonage did not apply to him or Sweet. And as church members, they had every right to say what they wanted.

Davis, now a pastor himself, and his father have started a new church, calling it First Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

"This is not the Christian way," he said. "This started as a group of people persecuting the pastor. Now they're persecuting us."

Davis, Sweet and the former pastor himself are expected to testify when the trial continues today.

"This was some people opposing me," the Rev. L.

P. Davis said. "The (parsonage) was a trap for me."

Meanwhile, deacon Henry Webb _ who led the crusade to oust Davis _ says Mount Pilgrim has survived the fray with few scars and grown into a congregation that gets along "beautifully."