Judge rules for plaintiffs in Mt. Zion Church case

Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Oxford.

Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Oxford.

COVINGTON -- Former members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church will not get a second bite at the apple to make the conveyance of the church property legal, according to an order issued last week by a Newton County judge.

Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn issued a ruling Friday denying a request by Clayton "Skeet" Dial and Angela Ballard to convene a meeting of Mt. Zion's members in order to ratify their actions in 2010 when they gave away the historic Baptist church property and assets.

The lawsuit was filed after the pastor and other congregants of Mt. Zion Baptist arrived to church one day in August 2010 and found no trespassing signs on the property and the doors locked. They then learned Dial and Ballard had conveyed all of the church's assets to the nonprofit group, God's Hope Builders Inc., of Conyers.

About 30 church members, including Pastor Chris Allen, sued Ballard, Dial -- who served as the church's sole deacon -- and the nonprofit organization, God's Hope Builders Inc., alleging the transaction was illegal. A three-day bench trial was held in May.

Ozburn issued a partial order in July in which he ruled the transfer was unlawful because it was done without knowledge or consent of the majority of the church's members.

On Aug. 3, Dial and Ballard asked the court to order a formal meeting of the church so that members could vote to ratify the transfer of the church property to God's Hope Builders.

The plaintiffs opposed this motion, stating that Dial and Ballard cannot seek a meeting of the church membership because they are no longer members of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.

The displaced members of Mt. Zion, who have been meeting at Lighthouse Baptist Church on Ga. Highway 81, held a special called meeting on July 20, during which the members voted to terminate the membership of Dial and Ballard.

Dial and Ballard contested this meeting and its outcome, claiming it was not conducted properly.

The judge disagreed.

He wrote in his Dec. 2 order that notice of this meeting "was provided orally and by publication in the church bulletin during the two-week period prior to the meeting, which is a typical manner for making announcements affecting members."

Ozburn also found that a sufficient number of members were present at this meeting, which not only satisfied the requirement for a quorum, but also made Pastor Allen's presence irrelevant, since Dial and Ballard have challenged his status as a member of Mt. Zion.

With regard to the substance surrounding the members' reasons for terminating Dial's and Ballard's membership, the judge said the court has no jurisdiction to decide individual church membership claims.

That said, Ozburn pointed out that Mt. Zion's bylaws, which were prepared and voted on by Dial and Ballard, state that the church may exclude a member of the church if two-thirds of the members present at a special called meeting find "that the welfare of the church will best be served by the exclusion of the member."

"The defendants' memberships were terminated based upon their unilateral and unconditional conveyance of all property of the church to (God's Hope Builders) without notice to or the consent of the church membership," Ozburn wrote.

As a result of the judge's order denying Dial's and Ballard's request to convene a church meeting, God's Hope Builders Inc. must return the church property and assets to Mount Zion Baptist Church of Oxford, Georgia Inc., the corporation embodying the church.

"We are very pleased with this ruling and are looking forward to getting this matter wrapped up very soon," Michael Waldrop, attorney for Mt. Zion, said on Monday.

Calls to defendants' attorney, Robert Stansfield, were not returned by press time.