Church members forced to hand over keys to members who left year - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Church members forced to hand over keys to members who left years ago

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Eau Claire (WQOW)- A judge hands down a ruling in an Eau Claire church dispute that goes back years.  The result of that ruling is that church keys have been turned over.

Grace Lutheran in Eau Claire finds itself in a bind. 

"It's been years of a battle between the ELCA and people that feel they're going in the wrong direction," explains Grace Lutheran Facilities Manager Cynthia Mayer.

The majority of members at Grace Lutheran wanted to affiliate their church with another Lutheran church under a different organization.

"The national organization approved gays and lesbians in their admission to church and the like and my understanding is that's what they were strongly opposed to and decided to go out on their own on that issue and make an issue of it which separated, sadly, the church itself," points out ELCA Attorney Thomas Guelzow.

The church says that wasn't the main issue.

"Our initial disagreement has been with theology.  We simply want to worship the way that we have for the last 100 years and 500 years if you think about Martin Luther," says Grace Lutheran Pastor David Irgens.  "This new way of interpreting scripture is Jesus Christ as a symbol instead of the person of Jesus Christ."

Even though a majority supported dual affiliation, church members needed a two-thirds majority.  They fell short, but still opposed changes that were made.  So they practiced as if the vote were approved; which in effect, split the church.

"The overall structure of the church is not like the Methodist Church or the Episcopal Church or the Catholic Church.  There isn't a hierarchy," says Congressional Council President Anne Carter.  "We are individual churches who work together, but there is no "overlordship" and that's what is being imposed upon this church unconstitutionally and without due process."

Some stayed while others formed another congregation called "Amazing Grace."

The case went to court.  The Amazing Grace parishioners wanted action taken against those who were still actively practicing at Grace Lutheran.  Those at Grace were asking for a split from the ELCA.  The court's decision came down on Tuesday.

"The judge agreed with us," Guelzow says.  "Essentially it ruled yesterday there is a separation of church and state."

The judge said all governing authority must be given to the Amazing Grace congregation.

Church leaders were told to give up the keys, but initially refused until Wednesday afternoon.  The keys were turned over when those at Grace Lutheran were threatened with being in contempt of court.

"They have refused to come back and join us; instead asking the court to turn everything over to them.  We have reached this point," relents Carter.

"We will have to appeal this decision, because now the judge in Polk County has said that we can't worship the way that we used to worship the last one hundred years," counters Irgens.  "So we will appeal this decision."

The court ruling also says financial records along with other pertinent information must be transferred to amazing Grace leadership.  An appeal is anticipated.

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