CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A dispute at a Charlotte church has led to members being banned from church property, the firing of the church's priest and a lawsuit in state court.
At issue in the lawsuit is whether or not the head of the parish council at Holy Trinity Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Dr. Solomon Gugsa, improperly changed the church's bylaws to extend his term and alter membership requirements to exclude those who disagree with him.
The lawsuit was originally filed in March 2014. An amended complaint was filed in November 2014.
There are 20 plaintiffs in the lawsuit; each plaintiff is a member of the church and some of them served as officers on the church's parish council.
In addition to challenging Gugsa's actions as head of the parish council, the plaintiffs are also seeking access to the church's membership list and financial documents.
Documents obtained by On Your Side Investigates show members of the church made repeated requests for complete access to the church's membership list and financial documents before the lawsuit was filed to no avail.
North Carolina state law requires membership lists and financial records of all incorporated non-profits to be made available to its membership upon request.
An attorney for Holy Trinity, Julian Wright, said church leaders have complied with the law.
"Anybody who has ask for those records, that I'm aware of, has not been denied those records," Wright said.
Wright agreed to sit down with On Your Side Investigates after Gugsa refused multiple requests for an interview.
Priest fired, bishop banned
According to Wright, the plaintiffs who filed a lawsuit against Holy Trinity did so because the Gugsa-led parish council voted to fire the church's priest in February 2014.
Father Gebremariam Asefa Hailu had been the church's priest for two years at the time of his firing.
"They emailed me, they didn't even come talk to me face to face, they just emailed me," Father Hailu said. "They said 'You're fired. You're terminated.'"
Like most members of the church, Father Hailu is an Ethiopian immigrant. The church was sponsoring his R-1 visa, which is provided to religious leaders who come to the United States to work for a non-profit church.
When the church fired Father Hailu, it also pulled its sponsorship for his visa. As a result, Father Hailu was at danger of being sent back to Ethiopia, where he risked being persecuted for coming to the United States and speaking out against the government.
Father Hailu has since been granted asylum.
The Sunday after being fired from Holy Trinity, Father Hailu learned he had also been banned from the church.
"It was about six o'clock in the morning. I come (sic) to the church and I was barred by some of the parish council members and an off duty police officer," Father Hailu said.
Police reports show Gugsa had Father Hailu trespassed from the church's property. Similarly, the bishop, who oversees Holy Trinity's spiritual practice, was banned from the church's property a week later when he came to discuss Father Hailu's firing with the parish council.
Julian Wright, the church's lawyer, said the bishop was told he could only come and pray at the church. He was not allowed to come on church property, Wright said, unless he promised that he would not discuss Father Hailu's firing.
"We advised the bishop that if you're coming from an improper purpose you'll be trespassing," Wright explained. "You're not invited to come and do that."
Church dispute in court
Wright has challenged the lawsuit against Holy Trinity in legal filings. In December, he filed a motion on behalf of the church asking a judge to throw the lawsuit out because it dealt with an internal church dispute.
"The lawsuit impermissibly entangles the Court in ecclesiastical matters, in contravention of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article 1, Section 13 of the North Carolina Constitution," Wright's motion read.
The motion also said Father Hailu's firing was the basis for the entire lawsuit.
A judge denied the defendants' motion to dismiss in early January. The church is appealing that decision but it is not yet clear whether or not the North Carolina Court of Appeals will hear the church's appeal before the matter is completely resolved at the trial court level.
In his interview with On Your Side Investigates, Wright agreed that filing a lawsuit over, essentially, access to church records is an extreme measure. But he challenged the plaintiffs' claims that they had repeatedly requested the documents before turning to litigation.
"You seem to be making the assumption that people are making the request and they're just beating down the door to do that and that's just false," Wright said in response to a question about why the church doesn't just provide the documents to the plaintiffs. "Now, apparently, somebody is suggesting they've been denied access to the financial records and that's just false."
But records obtained by On Your Side Investigates show church members, who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit, requested the records on at least three separate occasions.
Zebene Mesele was the church's elected internal auditor. Emails show he tried to begin auditing the church's financial records for the 2013 fiscal year, to no avail, starting in November 2013.
Mesele's frustration was captured in a February 9, 2014 email.
"I was trying to get start my auditing process at the church since November, 2013," Mesele said. "They keep promising me to submit needy (sic) documents but not yet delivered. They gave me different reasons as such that the documents are with the outside auditors, they were busy and Panthers game and so on."
Gugsa, the head of the church's parish council, would later email Mesele to tell him he could have access to necessary financial records one afternoon at the church. Mesele would later write that Gugsa refused to provide copies of paperwork to be reviewed outside of the church.
A second request for the church's membership list and financial documents was made by a different church member in a February 7, 2014 email.
"As a church member: I am asking again, Please provide the church Bi-law (sic) and financial statements "P&L, Balance Sheet" to any members who have requested before our February 23 meeting," Rahel Gashaw wrote to Gugsa and another church leader.
The February 23, 2014 meeting Gashaw referred to was the church's annual meeting. Wright said that meeting is open to all church members.
"There's a financial summary provided to the church every year at its annual meeting and anyone who wants to come look at the full audited records of the church can do so," Wright said.
According to documents obtained by On Your Side Investigates and conversations with multiple church members who were present for the meeting, the only financial information provided was a one-page document that summarized money that came into the church and money that was spent. Members were told they could not remove the document from the meeting.
The bylaws of Holy Trinity have been amended by the Gugsa-led parish council twice in the past two years. The first time in April 2013.
Included in the amendments in 2013 were changes to the requirements for membership in the church.
The changes required church members to "[contribute] the minimum required monthly membership fee without interruptions." It also requires church members to work as volunteers at a concession stand at home games for the Carolina Panthers "more than five times" a year.
Dr. Joe Brown, who pastored Hickory Grove Baptist Church--the largest Southern Baptist church in North Carolina--for 26 years, said requirements like that are not good for a church.
"I call that legalism at the least," Brown said.
But Wright defended the changes as being no different from what many churches do.
"I don't see what's going on at Holy Trinity that's remarkably different from expecting all the disciples to contribute what they have and what is precious to them to the greater glory of God and the greater working of His church," Wright said.
The church's bylaws were amended a second time in March 2014. The second batch of changes extended the length of time Gugsa could stay at the helm of the parish council.
The lawsuit filed by church members claim the amendment was improper in accordance with church rules. Plaintiffs painted the move as a power grab.
Brown, the long-time pastor, said making disputed changes like the ones at issue at Holy Trinity are bad for the health of a church.
"Any time any church gets to where the leadership is behind closed doors and they're shut off from the people--there's not a touching of the people--there's going to be a problem," Brown said.
Continuing to pray
Father Hailu, who was fired and banned from the church more than a year ago, stands outside of Holy Trinity every Sunday.
In the past year, he said, the church has erected a fence and covered it with black cloth to block its view.
"This is unheard of, banning from church," Father Hailu said. "This is not just a building, this is God's house. Everyone should come and pray peacefully. This is a forgiveness place."
On one Sunday in April, the banned priest was flanked by several members of the church. The men stood silently on a public sidewalk outside of the gate. Occasionally, church members would stop to be blessed by Father Hailu on their way in or out of the church's parking lot.
"I'm not going anywhere. I have to stand for this church. I have to show to the people, we have to stand for our faith."