Media in this region were quick to jump last month on a story about a local church’s lawsuit against a former member. But another story could be written regarding how quickly the matter also became not only national but international news.
On the Portland Radio Guide web site (pdxradio.com), which features commentary not only about local radio but also a number of other news topics, one regular poster to the site on Saturday evening, May 12, shared a link to a KATU Channel 2 story on the lawsuit and its focus on free speech issues. That same poster wrote his belief that “this story has legs” and that he could see the story “going nationwide in a few days.”
It didn’t take anywhere near that long.
Within eight hours, that poster returned to note that the story had already been featured not only on a Memphis, Tenn., TV station’s site, but also on an Australian news site. Then only a few hours later it was carried on the ABC News web site, the HuffingtonPost.com and New York Daily News sites, and the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. And it continued to spread from there to msnbc.com and a multitude of other sites.
On March 1, Pastor Charles O’Neal of Beaverton Grace Bible Church filed a $500,000 lawsuit against Julie Anne Smith and three other former church members. He claimed that statements they had made online about the church and allegations of cult-like activity and spiritual abuse amounted to defamation. After initially posting critical reviews of the church on Google, in February Smith launched a blog called Beaverton Grace Bible Church Survivors (bgbcsurvivors.blogspot.com) According to KGW Channel 8 News, the site has been viewed nearly 26,000 times since launching a few months ago.
Smith, a mother of seven who homeschools her children, claimed that church members began shunning her and her family after they left the Beaverton church almost four years ago. She said she had tried to resolve conflicts with the church, but received no response and eventually took her concerns to the Internet out of desperation to address what she felt was spiritual abuse.
But O’Neal, pastor of the church for 13 years, and others in the church’s leadership have a different take on the dispute. A statement on the church’s web site, www.beavertongracebible.org, says the lawsuit was filed “very reluctantly” only after O’Neal, his family and the church have endured more than three years of escalating “false accusations that range from ridiculous to criminal” by a group of former church members and attenders. It also claims that the whole controversy deals not with free speech issues but with deliberate injury to the congregation and the church’s basic ability to promote the Gospel.
The elders of the church concluded their only viable option was legal action, it states. The statement is followed by a lengthy commentary quoting various Christian leaders past and present on why sometimes it is necessary for followers of Christ to go to court.
Acknowledging the huge amount of media attention the story has received, the church statement advises those outside the congregation not to jump to conclusions: “Please do not be quick to believe what you hear or read in the press and then pass judgment upon our motives or our commitment to Scripture.”
In response to O’Neal’s lawsuit, Smith’s attorney, Linda Williams, filed a motion to dismiss the suit. Williams told KGW that the lawsuit is frivolous because of free speech protections and the high amount of damages requested.
The motion was to go before a judge during the latter part of May.
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