EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first story of the final day of testimony in the Mt. Zion Baptist Church lawsuit. More coverage to follow.
COVINGTON -- Testimony wrapped up Tuesday in the lawsuit pitting members of a local church against each other, but not before the judge admonished all parties to consider the fruits of sowing disunity among believers.
"This has been a very painful case for me to consider because of the nature of it, but that's why I'm here," Newton County Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn said. "It's hurtful to see this thing going on in the body."
Ozburn then pointed out several passages in the Old and New Testaments that stressed the importance of unity among the church.
"Besides hurting the kingdom (of God), it's hurtful because of the message we are sending to our community members who are not in church," the judge told the courtroom packed with members from Mt. Zion Baptist Church.
"Everyone involved needs to question your own heart and think about why we are here. ... This case is going to be decided in accordance with the law because that is what has been given to me to decide. ... Everyone needs to go home and pray about it. I know I have."
The case in question involves the action of two church members -- Clayton "Skeet" Dial and his daughter, Angela Ballard -- who conveyed in August all the church's property and assets to the nonprofit organization, God's Hope Builders Inc., without the knowledge of many of Mt. Zion's members, including the pastor.
Against the backdrop of this decision was the concern by Dial and Ballard that many of the "members" were not members at all, but instead were improperly admitted to the church in a power play by Pastor Chris Allen. Allen's ultimate goal, they allege, was to move Mt. Zion to an independent Baptist status, away from its Southern Baptist affiliation.
As the sole deacon, Dial had testified earlier that it was within his rights to give the property away to protect the church. However, the validity of one of the key documents used to show wide support for the conveyance was brought into question Tuesday.
Clarence Hall -- a defendant in the case and one of the principals in God's Hope Builders Inc. -- testified that he felt comfortable completing the transaction with Mt. Zion in part because he had a resolution signed by about 20 members permitting God's Hope Builders to receive the church's assets. This resolution was also relied upon for the real estate closing, he said.
Upon questioning by Mike Waldrop, attorney for the plaintiffs bringing the lawsuit against Hall, Dial and Ballard, Hall admitted that he did not personally secure the 20 signatures nor did he meet with any of the people who allegedly signed the resolution to ensure they knew what they were signing. Instead, he gave it to Ballard to garner signatures.
"So, she could have signed it herself and given it (back) to you," Waldrop asked.
"She could have," Hall reluctantly admitted.
Even the judge questioned its validity, noting that the resolution bears no witness signature, no attestation, no certification or even a signature from the church's secretary -- who at the time was Ballard.
Waldrop said the document amounted to no more than hearsay.
"We don't know who, if anybody, signed this," he said. "I don't know if this has been shown to anyone and asked if this is their signature."
While the defendants' attorney, Robert Stansfield admitted that the document was not "perfectly executed," he argued that that its admission is proper and it is the judge's discretion to consider its strength.
Ozburn agreed to admit the resolution "and give it its appropriate weight" when considering all evidence.
Attorneys said they do not plan to present additional evidence regarding membership processes at Mt. Zion. Final legal briefs are due to the judge by June 10, after which he said he will make a decision.