Harvest Church, Methodist lawyers spar in lively court hearing
DOTHAN, Ala. (WTVY) - A Houston County judge has much to ponder before he delivers a monumental ruling involving a church’s feud with its denomination.
During a Wednesday hearing, the United Methodist Church accused Harvest Dothan of bolting without fulfilling its obligations.
“Harvest identified itself as a Methodist Church (when it formed 26 years ago) and continued to do so,” said UMC attorney Alan Livingston.
He believes there had been no issue until differences arose over human sexuality issues, and Harvest voted overwhelmingly in January to leave the denomination as other Methodist churches have done.
“(Harvest) took an oath to the Methodist Church and now wants to disaffiliate and take their property without accepting the guidelines to do that,” Livingston told Houston County Circuit Judge Christopher Richardson.
He said the impressive Fortner Street campus is deeded both to Harvest and UMC and there is a procedure to secede from the denomination.
That includes a buyout that those with knowledge of the matter estimate at up to about one million dollars.
“The church doesn’t want to pay,” accused attorney Robert Northcutt who, like Livingston, represents the UMC.
However, Harvest attorneys view the dispute differently.
“If this was 1880 or even 1920, it would not be worth hearing my argument,” Ryan K. French countered.
But he told Judge Richardson that, in the past few decades, other court rulings--some in Alabama--set precedent that favors Harvest.
“The law is on the side of the local church,” he said, as he compared the dispute to friends going their separate ways after a falling out.
“The principal issue for the court to decide is whether the court has jurisdiction to rule upon the property declaration sought by Harvest Church,” French told News4 in an emailed statement after the hearing in which he also said Harvest would continue to seek God’s will. .
UMC attorneys did not comment.
The dispute sprouted in November when Harvest filed suit against UMC, expressing fears that denominational leaders would seize their campus.
Other churches at odds with the UMC are closely eyeing this case to determine how they should proceed.
During the hearing on Wednesday, Richardson held up a stack of motions filed in the case that weighs several pounds to illustrate the case’s complexity.
A estimated crowd of about 75 Harvest members attended the hearing.
“We’re here to support Pastor Ralph,” one said as he entered the courtroom, referring to Harvest founding pastor Ralph Sigler.
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