- The Washington Times - Friday, March 24, 2000

The Rev. John A. Cherry and his supporters can leave the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, but they won't be taking millions of dollars worth of contested property, buildings and cash with them, a Prince George's County, Md., judge ruled Thursday.

Circuit Judge E. Allen Sheperd handed down his ruling in the dispute between the national AME Zion organization and Mr. Cherry, who built a small storefront church in Clinton into the Full Gospel AME Church, one of the country's largest and most important congregations.

Mr. Cherry and most of the 24,000 members of Full Gospel broke away from the national denomination in July to form a new church, From the Heart Ministries.

The new group filed suit in August seeking control of $40 million worth of Full Gospel assets, including cash, a national television ministry, two buildings, at least 120 acres in Prince George's, land in the District of Columbia and a private jet for the pastor's around-the-world travels.

"The court determines that property that was acquired by the local church [Pastor Cherry's church] was in the name of the denomination," Judge Sheperd said during his terse summary judgment. "The court determined that there was a trust clause provision," between Pastor Cherry's church and the AME Zion church.

AME Zion countersued in November, accusing Mr. Cherry of trying to swindle the national organization.

After the verdict, emotions ran high inside the courtroom and in the hallways of the courthouse. Some churchgoers were stunned.

"I'm just grateful. God heard our prayer," said the Rev. Milton A. Williams, bishop of the Philadelphia-Baltimore conference for AME Zion and a defendant in Mr. Cherry's lawsuit.

Bishop Williams wept after the judgment and was congratulated by some fellow bishops and members of Full Gospel AME Zion who had stuck with the denomination.

After the hearing, Bishop Williams, the other bishops and their attorneys held hands in a conference room, giving a prayer of thanks.

Thursday's hearing was meant to be little more than a procedural hearing. But the ruling came down as a summary judgment in response to an AME Zion motion to dismiss to the case.

Mr. Cherry was not present for the hearing and did not return telephone calls from The Washington Times.

"That's what we're going to figure out right now," said Jack Lipson, one of Mr. Cherry's attorneys, when asked what their next move will be.

Nearly 100 people packed the courtroom in Upper Marlboro, lending the proceedings the solemn air of a subdued Sunday service. Quiet amens and nods of agreement punctuated the hearing as lawyers argued the case. AME Zion bishops and pastors were in force and in ministerial dress, with the bishops wearing purple shirts and starched white collars.

Since autumn, several dozen Full Gospel congregants, former members of Mr. Cherry's church, have gathered at the Colony South Hotel in Clinton for worship every Sunday morning while Mr. Cherry's group has continued to hold services at the congregation's large Temple Hills and Clinton facilities.

"I'm elated, I never had any doubt in my heart that we wouldn't win this case," said Fred Gray, a Full Gospel trustee and a former member of Mr. Cherry's congregation.

"I was surprised [Mr. Cherry] went this far," Mr. Gray said. "He put us through a lot."

Mr. Cherry began his original AME Zion church in a storefront in 1981, and as the church grew so did the powerful pastor's frustrations with the national denominational structure and its leaders. Those frustrations reached the breaking point in July, when Mr. Cherry decided to create his own independent church.

"The decision vindicates the basic tenets and discipline of our church," said the Rev. George W. Walker, president of the board of bishops for the national denomination. "The decision says a lot for denominational churches."

The lawsuits basically came down to whether the local church, started by Mr. Cherry, held its assets in trust with the members of the national denomination. Mr. Cherry's suit contends that the deeds to various properties did not hold the denomination in trust.

During arguments, Mr. Lipson stated that four decades of appellate decisions backed up his client's claim. He said that Mr. Cherry's new church shouldn't have to revert property back to "a new church that claims to be our alter ego."

"This isn't a transfer of property case," Mr. Lipson said. "We left the church, and we took with us our own property."

But AME Zion attorney Thomas McCally argued that the denomination had a right to protect property in the name of its congregation and that Mr. Cherry acquired the assets by using the name Full Gospel AME Zion.

"There is nothing unfair about the denomination protecting church property after the local church leaves the denomination," Mr. McCally said. "That church continued [as Full Gospel AME Zion]… . Those members have the right to that property."

Judge Sheperd agreed that Mr. Cherry acquired the property through his trust and affiliation with the AME Zion church. Although Judge Sheperd made a legal determination, there are still motions that could be heard, and attorneys for both sides were trying to negotiate Thursday to determine how a property transfer could take place.

There will be discussions about what property Mr. Cherry's church actually has: There are, for instance, questions about whether the private jet is owned or leased.

Bishop Williams said that his organization made an offer to settle the dispute with Mr. Cherry out of court, before the verdict. But despite Thursday's favorable verdict, he remains cautious.

"The battle is not over," Bishop Williams said. "We keep praying that God will direct us."

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