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Church fights members' secession

There's been an insurrection at Palm Grove Reformed Church, according to a lawsuit filed last week.

The church's membership has voted to secede from its national denomination. It changed the church's name and seized the property, even changing the locks on the doors. Church members who disagreed with the changes have been forced to leave. They now hold services at a local funeral parlor.

Those are among the claims made by the Florida governing body of the Reformed Church in America, one of the oldest Protestant denominations in America, in a lawsuit filed last week in Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Court.

According to the suit, Palm Grove pastor Timothy Santinga and a contingent of church members disagreed with the Reformed Church in America over such issues as the baptism of infants and the ordination of women and what were construed as "liberal" leanings by the national denomination.

According to the suit, the dispute came to a head Jan. 31, when the locks were changed on church buildings. The following day, the congregation voted to withdraw its affiliation with the Reformed Church in America and become independent.

The Classis of Florida _ the Reformed Church in America's governing body in this state _ is suing Santinga and the church, claiming they have no right to secede or to independently possess the church's buildings and property.

Santinga could not be reached for comment Monday. Phone messages left for him at the church and his home were not returned. Paul Admundsen, the attorney representing the Reformed Church in America in the suit, also did not return phone messages left Monday.

In a profile of Palm Grove's drive-in ministry in Saturday's Times, Santinga said that, as of Feb. 1, the church became "denominationally unaffiliated" and that it is an independent fellowship, is forming a new constitution and will be self-governing.

According to the suit, the rift between Palm Grove and the Reformed Church in America opened in 1993 and got bigger this year. The dispute is over these issues:

Baptism. Santinga and others, the suit alleges, disagree with the Reformed Church in America's doctrine of baptizing infants.

Ordination of women. Santinga and others object to the parent denomination's policy of ordaining women as ministers and church officers.

The "liberal" connection. The suit alleges that Santinga and others object to the Reformed Church in America's relationships with organizations they consider "liberal," such as the Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the World and National Councils of Churches and the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

The suit asks that a judge order the Holiday church not to secede and rule that church properties belong solely to the Reformed Church in America.

It notes that the property on which the church sits and the church buildings were paid for by the national denomination's Classis of Wisconsin over the past 22 years.

No exact value is listed in the suit for the property and church buildings, but it does list several loan and payment amounts that would bring the total to at least several hundred thousand dollars.

In a letter to congregation members dated Jan. 19, Santinga states he has "secured a legal opinion" that gives him confidence the church properties "would remain with the congregation."

The Reformed Church in America disagrees, and the suit states that Santinga's followers have no legal basis to deny the national denomination the church.

The "doctrine of deference," the suit states, "requires civil courts to defer to church laws and to defer to the decisions of the hierarchal governmental bodies of the church."

The congregation voted 255 to 48 on Feb. 1 to leave the Reformed Church. Some time later, the church changed its name to Palm Grove Church.

Robert Jackson of Holiday attended the Feb. 1 meeting with his uncle, Eric Fischer, a charter member of Palm Grove.

On Feb. 17, Jackson wrote a letter to Kelvin Kronemeyer, clerk of the national denomination's Classis of Florida. In the letter, which appears in the suit, Jackson likened the meeting to a "bad comedy with bad actors playing out very serious and dangerous roles.

After the decision to secede was announced, Jackson wrote, members of the congregation were given pieces of paper, in which they had to declare "membership affiliation," "membership removal" or "not sure."

"It was one of the cruelest acts anyone could do," Jackson wrote. "My uncle and aunt spent the better part of 23 years helping to build that church. . . . They prayed for that church. They supported its programs and ministry.

"In one moment's time, they were being told they no longer counted and could go their way. Never mind the social ties that had been built up over the years. "Sign or leave.' "