By KAREN VELIE
A San Luis Obispo County judge on Monday rebuked a motion to restrain parishioners from attending services at the Bethel Baptist Church on Newport Avenue while two groups battle over ownership of the property.
Last fall, the Christian and Missionary Alliance (C&MA) entered into an agreement to sell the 57-year-old church and 3.1-acre lot valued at $2.4 million to $2.9 million to The 5 Cities Homeless Coalition. Proceeds of the sale were to go into the coffers of the C&MA, a group known for absorbing churches and then selling off their assets.
Members of the Bethel Baptist Church began battling the C&MA over ownership of the property in early 2019 when they were told that the church was being shuttered and sold because membership had declined. After parishioners changed the locks, secured title to the property and accused the C&MA of fraud, the C&MA sued for ownership of the church.
As part of the legal wranglings, C&MA’s attorney Michael Pick filed a motion to bar the parishioners from entering the church until the court determines the legal owner: the C&MA or the Bethel Baptist Church congregation.
In Court, Pick accused the parishioners of destroying church property, and said that they might burn it down. Pick said Pastor John Fleming had changed the locks, emptied the bank account, and filed a new grant deed, all without legal authority. Judge Ginger Garrett denied Pick’s motion.
Garrett suggested mediation, but both sides felt there was no room to negotiate. Pick then asked the judge to move the trial up to April 2020, to protect his clients from loosing their buyer.
Earlier this month, The 5 Cities Homeless Coalition purchased a 3,855 square-foot property at 100 Fourth Street in Grover Beach, where they plan to conduct homeless services. Even so, the homeless coalition is still trying to buy the Bethel Baptist Church property to utilize for homeless housing.
One of the attorneys for the Bethel Baptist Church, Michael Haupt, told the court he plans to seek a summary judgement and agreed to a tentative trial date in April.
According to the C&MA lawsuit, as membership and finances declined, the church legally became under the governance and ownership of C&MA. Pick wants the court to compel Fleming to transfer legal title to C&MA, to eject the congregants from the property, to return of the bank account funds, and pay punitive damages and cost of the suit.
On the other side, Fleming and the Bethel Baptist Church Board said C&MA employees illegally transferred the church to the C&MA after they used church money to pay off their personal debts.