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Case may decide direction of social action agency

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A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Nov. 26, 2008 | WASHINGTON

 A decades-old story of money, temperance and power is winding its way through a District of Columbia court and the ending may impact the future work of The United Methodist Church’s social action agency.

A superior court judge is weighing testimony and reading reams of historic documents to determine if donations given for the construction of The Methodist Building on Capitol Hill in the early 1900s were intended for work in temperance and alcohol only. A decision is not expected until the first part of 2009.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society’s trustees filed a request in early 2007 for a declaratory decision on the appropriate use of the building endowment funds. The Board of Church and Society is the successor to the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals and two other agencies of the former Methodist Episcopal Church. The temperance board led efforts to construct The Methodist Building in Washington, completed in 1923.

Over the past four decades, the legality of the use of income from assets of the board have been challenged by individuals or groups of individuals within The United Methodist Church, said Jim Winkler, top executive of the Board of Church and Society. The challenges questioned the use of board assets in areas other than the problems created by the use of alcohol and focus established in a 1965 Declaration of Trust.

The Board of Church and Society is seeking a reformation of the 1965 trust document, which will make it clear that future use of income of the Endowment Fund will not be confined to problems related to alcohol abuse

The case went to trial Oct. 6 and Judge Rhonda Reid Winston heard final arguments on Oct. 22. Attorneys are working on final summary statements, which are due to the judge Jan. 8. After the judge reviews those statements, she will issue a decision.

The judge ruled that the creators of the 1965 Declaration of Trust probably meant to confine the funds to alcohol and temperance concerns, but she was uncertain whether the language in the document accurately reflected their original intentions.

“The court is convinced that there is genuine issue about whether the (1965) Declaration, as drafted, inaccurately and mistakenly reflects the intentions of the settlors,” Winston said.

At stake is how the Board of Church and Society will use $2.6 million, which includes both the building and principal in the trust fund.

During the Oct. 22-26 meeting of the agency’s board of directors, Winkler reported that $1.4 million of the board’s reserves have been spent on attorney fees so far. Winkler said the board originally budgeted $100,000 for legal fees but the cost started escalating when five interveners entered the case.

The five interveners, C. Pat Curtin, Carolyn Elias, Leslie O. Fowler, John Patton Meadows and John Stumbo are all United Methodists who have been delegates at one time or another to the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking body. One of the interveners, Curtin, has died since the case began.

The attorney general’s office of the District of Columbia is involved in the case because the office represents the public interest in all cases involving charitable trusts within its jurisdiction.

Witnesses who have testified in the case include Winkler, Wesley E. Paulson, chief financial officer for the board, Roger Burgess, former executive with the Division of Alcohol Problems and General Welfare of the Board of Christian Social Concerns of the Methodist Church from 1953-1965, and Stumbo, a member of the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability. The coalition includes Good News, the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the Confessing Movement, groups frequently at odds with the Board of Church and Society over its advocacy work on social justice issues.

Included in the documents submitted as evidence in the case are minutes from board meetings dating back to the early 1900s, issues of The Voice, a periodical largely devoted to temperance issues published from 1914 to 1956, memos, letters and wills. The evidence also includes depositions from former staff members and retired Bishop Dale White, a staff executive of the General Board of Christian Social Concerns from 1961-1968.

Sentinel for social reform

The 1916 Methodist General Conference created the Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals of the Methodist Episcopal Church. The mission of the “Old Board” as it became known, was “to promote the cause of temperance by every legitimate means; to prevent the improper use of drugs and narcotics; to render aid to such causes as in the judgment of the board of trustees tend to advance the public welfare.”

A corner lot on Washington’s Capitol Hill was purchased in 1917 and construction of The Methodist building started in 1922. A five-story building was completed in 1923 at a cost of $650,000. Money for the project was raised through individual and church gifts, some as small as 15 cents.

At the dedication in 1924, the building’s purpose was described as a “sentinel and a supporter for social reform in the Capital; a voice for the religious community, a visible witness.”

The Methodist Building located next to the Supreme Court and across the street from the U.S. Capitol is the only non-government building on Capitol Hill and was the first national Protestant agency to locate in Washington.

According to a history of the building on the Board of Church and Society’s web site, the building is significant for the role it has played at turning-points in the nation's history. These include the 1963 March on Washington led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; the 1968 Poor People's March, the farmworkers' boycott; years of protest against the Vietnam War; ERA marches, the 1978 Longest Walk of Native Americans; and the 1989 Housing NOW! March.

Its adjacent apartment complex, constructed in 1931, has been home to congressional representatives, Methodist bishops and Supreme Court Justices.

New Board of Temperance

In 1944, the Board of Temperance of The Methodist Church, known as the “New Board,” was formed as a result of a merger of the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Methodist Episcopal Church South and the Methodist Protestant Church.

In the certificate of incorporation of the Board of Temperance of The Methodist Church, the new board’s mission is defined as “to actively seek the suppression of salacious and corrupting literature, degrading amusements, lotteries, and other forms of gambling and to in every wise and lawful way promote the public morals.”

The new board received most of the Old Board’s assets, including title to the Methodist Building. In 1956, General Conference approved a plan to merge the New Board and the Board of World Peace and the Board of Social and Economic Relations into a single agency.

The three boards became part of the Board of Christian Social Concerns but retained their separate corporate identities and were renamed: Division of Temperance and General Welfare; Division of Peace and World Order; and Division of Human Relations and Economic Affairs. Burgess, associate general secretary of the Division of General Welfare during that time, testified that tensions over funds developed during this time because the Peace Division and the Economic Affairs Division were not as well funded as the Division of General Welfare.

Burgess testified that he believed individuals intended their donations to be used solely for temperance and alcohol-related work which lead to the drafting of the March 23, 1965 Declaration of Trust.

In a letter he wrote on Jan. 22, 1965, Burgess said “a reading of the minutes and a study of the old Boards of Temperance and of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals indicates very clearly that the money given in previous years was given in trust for work in the field of alcohol problems. To expand the use of the trust now would be to break faith with those who gave the money.”

Closing arguments

In closing arguments, Brian Caldwell, assistant attorney general, and Timothy Obitts, attorney for the five interveners, said when the “settlors” wrote the 1965 declaration it was their intention that funds would be used for temperance and alcohol problems.

Obitts said the interveners are “concerned United Methodists that believe in the Methodist process and are concerned that funds held in trust are used for purposes stated in the trust,” he said.

 

“ At the dedication in 1924, the building’s purpose was described as a sentinel and a supporter for social reform in the Capital; a voice for the religious community, a visible witness. ”
“The interveners are lifelong United Methodists who knew about the Board of Temperance. It is mind boggling they could challenge history and it is disingenuous to say temperance meant something other than as it is defined in the Book of Discipline.”

 

Caldwell said, “There is no mistake as to what they (settlors) intended.”

Jeffrey A. Liesemer, attorney for the Board of Church and Society, said there is no evidence of restrictions imposed by donors.

“There is no evidence of any gift restrictions on pledge cards, in minutes of meetings, on bonds—nothing reveals any gift restrictions,” he said. The 1965 Declaration of Trust is not the whole story, he said. Liesemer said the compromise reached in October 1965 made it clear that, “the money could be used for all programs and couldn’t be squirreled away for temperance and alcohol problems.”

Liesemer argued that the 1965 Declaration of Trust was based on the mistaken belief that individuals who had given money to the board during the 1920s and 30s had wanted their donations to be confined to temperance and alcohol-related work.

“There was a dispute over the merger of the boards into the Division in 1960,” he said. “The dispute was over how money could be used when three boards converged. World Peace and Human Relations were not as well endowed, not as cash rich, and there was an effort to spread the wealth,” he said.

He added that the compromise “supplants” the original declaration and “under the law this allows for reformation.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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