A federal judge cleared the way Thursday for a St. Petersburg pastor to take the reins of the nation's largest African-American religious organization.
The judge lifted an order allowing the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to assume the presidency of the National Baptist Convention, USA.
Since Oct. 6, the order had frozen the day-to-day operations of the organization, which claims 8-million members in 33,000 churches nationwide.
District Superior Court Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin ruled that the constitutional doctrine that separates church and state affairs precluded the court from interfering in the church's internal affairs, including the dispute over whether Lyons was fairly elected at the organization's convention in September.
The judge concluded that elections officials, Lyons and his associates bent over backward to make sure every delegate qualified to vote got an opportunity to cast a ballot in the four-candidate race for the presidency.
A lawsuit by delegates from Alabama challenged Lyons' election. It was thrown out Thursday after two days of hearings.
"Having failed to create even a scintilla of a material factual dispute in that regard, the court concludes that the First Amendment dictates the court's decision, as a matter of law; and precludes judicial inquiry and resolution of this election dispute," the judge wrote.
Even had irregularities surfaced, she said, First Amendment constraints on court interference in church activities would still have clearly required the church to settle the matter internally.
Opponents' "blanket assertions, without any solid proof, that some 600 eligible voters from the State Convention of Alabama were denied the right to vote in breach of contract; specifically in breach of the tenets of the (church's) revised constitution, does not provide the court with a basis to conduct an inquiry where case law makes clear that the courts have no business or place."
Still left on the court's table, however, is an issue that may well shed some light onto the darker side of internal church politics. Mitchell-Rankin has scheduled a Dec. 7 hearing to try to find out who had fraudulently produced legal statements alleging that 45 qualified members of the Alabama contingent to the annual meeting had been refused a chance to vote.
Mitchell-Rankin's concern is this: The First Amendment _ and the rest of the Constitution _ offer no protection to anyone who intentionally lies to a judge.
It was those statements, in fact, that led the court to freeze the church's business on Oct. 6.
"I think some people are going to be more worried now about going to jail or getting an attorney," Lyons said after Thursday's hearing. "I would expect that there are going to be a lot of folks in Alabama who are going to be talking to save their own skins."
Even so, Lyons still has more immediate concerns. He must still wrest the church's financial controls away from the supporters of his chief antagonist, T. J. Jemison of Baton Rouge, La. Jemison was church president for 12 years until Lyons won the election Sept. 8.
While heartened by the court victory, Lyons said he fears the worst when he finally secures the organization's financial records: "My firm feeling is that I'm going to inherit a broke (Baptist) convention."
His assessment is at least somewhat informed: He has served in the church's hierarchy as a senior officer and board member for much of the past decade.
Lyons said he would begin immediately to consolidate the church's records. He wants to meet with Jemison as early as next week.
Lyons blames the Jemison camp for all of the confusion surrounding the voting at the annual meeting in New Orleans, saying they routinely withheld voter registration lists and blocked each initiative to straighten out procedures.
In fact, Lyons said, it was he and another presidential candidate who shelled out about $10,000 of their own money to provide voting machines and tabulation computers at the New Orleans meeting.
Although church members had approved a plan allowing secret balloting several years earlier, he said, Jemison had failed to make provisions for it.
In her ruling Thursday, Judge Mitchell-Rankin acknowledged the political forces that simmer within a body as large the 8-million-member National Baptist Convention.
The root of the dispute before her "is about Church/Convention politics, one faction's desire for power and the right to head, ostensibly, one of the most potentially powerful church organizations in the United States."
Attorney Jo Fleming, who represented Jemison, said she was disappointed with the ruling.
"I'm deeply saddened that (convention) members were unfairly denied the right to vote, which is one of the most precious rights we have in this country," she said.
_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.