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Ligonier church sued over withdrawal

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Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

The Hempfield-based Presbytery of Redstone, which oversees more than 15,000 practicing Presbyterians in Western Pennsylvania, is suing a Ligonier church for allegedly ignoring internal procedures for withdrawing from the presbytery.

In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday in Westmoreland County, officials said the Covenant Presbyterian Church has refused to comply with the steps required to leave the Presbyterian Church USA, which is the national organization that monitors 79 affiliated churches in Westmoreland, Fayette, Cambria and Somerset counties.

The Ligonier church has announced it intends to affiliate with the more conservative Evangelical Presbyterian Church, which opposes the ordination of gay ministers.

Steve Benz, interim presbyter of Redstone, said the Ligonier church issued a list of reasons for its wanting to withdraw from the organization, including opposition to the national policy that allows gays in the pulpit and in church leadership positions.

"They had a list of reasons for leaving," Benz said.

Covenant Presbyterian Church has about 425 members, Benz said.

In court documents, the national organization contends that the Ligonier church failed to comply with requirements that would allow Redstone to question members to see if any wanted to keep the current affiliation. The Ligonier church also ignored a requirement to turn over its financial records, the lawsuit alleges.

Last month, Redstone voted to seize the keys of the church to thwart the move to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, saying it first needed to assess church members' desires and the church's finances before allowing the move.

The organization wants a county judge to issue an injunction to compel the Ligonier church to turn over the keys and financial and membership records. It also wants the judge to enjoin the church from transferring its assets to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The Rev. Robert D. Cummings, pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church, did not return a call seeking comment.

Andrea Geraghty, the lawyer representing Covenant Presbyterian Church, said her clients have the right to change their affiliation and would defend themselves against the lawsuit.

"Covenant Presbyterian Church followed appropriate procedures to disaffiliate from the PC USA and affiliate with a denomination with beliefs more in line with those of its members," Geraghty said.

The Ligonier church wants to become the third in the area to transfer to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church in the last five years, Benz said.

The congregation of St. Francis in the Fields Episcopal Church near Somerset split off in 2008 and, more recently, members of Fort Palmer Church in Fairfield left the presbytery.

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