The Rev. Henry Lyons, who is trying to take back the reins of the organization he was ousted from 10 years ago, filed a lawsuit Tuesday to halt this week's National Baptist Convention presidential election.
Lyons' lawsuit, filed in a Washington, D.C., court, alleges that new bylaws that govern the convention's election violate the group's constitution.
A hearing before a judge today will determine whether the election, scheduled for Thursday in Memphis, will take place.
The lawsuit is just the latest twist in a saga surrounding the former St. Petersburg preacher, who served nearly five years in state prison for swindling more than $5.2 million from the organization's corporate partners.
The Rev. Geoffrey V. Guns, a former board member, says people attending the convention, which began Monday, are confused by the lawsuit.
"I think it's a desperate attempt to stop the will of the people," said Guns, 59, who is a member of the executive council of the organization's Sunday School Publishing Board. "It's an injunction to declare that the election is unfair, that he's been unfairly dealt with in this process, which is not true. And it's an attempt to subvert the will of the people."
Guns said that when Lyons was president of the organization, he had its board of directors approve an amendment to stop members from suing the convention. Now, he said, Lyons is doing what he didn't want others to do.
Lyons, pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa, could not be reached for comment.
His lawsuit says that new bylaws limit the number of representative members eligible to vote and gives some members additional votes if they are designated as representative members by more than one church, association or state convention.
Lyons claims that such changes constitute a breach of contract.
His petition says he raised his concerns with convention leaders, but they decided to go forward with the election.
Lyons, who became president of the organization in 1994, began having problems in 1997, when his then-wife set fire to a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owned with another woman.
The fire sparked an investigation into Lyons' finances. Two years later, he was convicted on state racketeering and grand theft charges and federal fraud and tax-evasion charges. He went to prison in 1999.
In 2007, he was fitted with a new robe during a rededication ceremony by convention members in Lakeland. That same year, Lyons tried and failed to become president of the Florida General Baptist Convention.
After he lost, he established his own state convention.
Now, his campaign for the national presidency has once again thrust a spotlight on the organization, the country's largest African-American religious group.
Some members see his campaign as a way to forgive a former leader they view as contrite.
Others are outraged that Lyons, who has aligned himself with the powerful and highly regarded Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., 59, of Tallahassee would even consider a run.
In this week's national election, Lyons is running against the Rev. Julius R. Scruggs of Alabama, the vice president at large. Both men are 67.
Guns, who is a pastor in Virginia, said people at the Memphis gathering are saying that Lyons doesn't have a chance to win - either the lawsuit or the presidency.
"It's really taking up a lot of the convention's time and it's a real waste of time," Guns said of the suit.
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.