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Deception alleged in Baptist power fight

In the course of doing God's work, it appears someone so strongly opposes the Rev. Henry J. Lyons as leader of the nation's largest African-American church that they're willing to lie to a judge.

Lyons' allies jammed into a sweltering courtroom and craned to hear every word of testimony Wednesday about allegations of improper voting procedures surrounding the St. Petersburg-based minister's recent election to the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.

Delegates representing the church's 8-million members met in New Orleans Sept. 8 to elect a new president. Lyons, the pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, received the most votes of the four candidates. He even beat the outgoing president's hand-picked successor.

But grumbling about voting irregularities soon ensued. On Oct. 6, attorneys representing a group of Alabama church members temporarily froze church business by court order from Washington, where the church is incorporated.

As part of their argument in obtaining the court order, the Alabama group produced sworn, signed legal affidavits from 45 church members who said they'd been denied ballots when they had attempted to vote.

On Wednesday, however, Lyons' attorneys turned the tables, producing some of the people who allegedly had signed the affidavits.

They never signed the affidavits, they told Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin. Some of them had voted. Others had not voted, but they knew they weren't eligible to begin with, so they never asked for a ballot.

Some were at the convention during the voting. Some were not. Some belonged to the churches listed in the complaint affidavits, but some were not.

In all, Lyons' legal team said, at least 30 of the 45 affidavits used to secure the Oct. 6 temporary court order are bogus.

"I want to know, very clearly, how many (affidavits) are valid and how many are not," the judge told attorneys for both sides.

In order to keep costs down, she said, she would be flexible in taking testimony: Witnesses could be interviewed elsewhere or over the telephone.

"I do appreciate the expense, but this is a very significant matter," she said.

A tentative hearing date of Dec. 7 has been set to review the anticipated testimony.

In a related development, Mitchell-Rankin said she would decide sometime today whether to lift the Oct. 6 court order freezing the Baptist convention's activities.

If she does lift the order, it would free Lyons to assume full control of the church.

The crowd on hand Wednesday clearly wanted the same.

"We Have A President!!" gushed the top headline of the church newspaper over a color photo of a smiling Lyons. The paper was a hot item in the courtroom hallways. Copies were freely handed around.

At least 300 people, most of them middle-age and elderly men, attended the court session. They had arrived from the nation's biggest cities and smallest burgs for a chance to cram themselves into Mitchell-Rankin's courtroom. Those who couldn't simply overflowed down the adjacent hallway.

The judge even moved the proceedings into the big courthouse's biggest courtroom, but it made little difference. It was still so crowded with church elders that fire regulations forced her to clear the court of people who couldn't find seats.

"One thing about a church, no matter whether it's big or small," said one minister as he gazed approvingly across the steamy room. "If it's packed, it's packed.