Members of two United Methodist congregations in southern Anne Arundel County are vigorously protesting the suspension of their popular minister while allegations including sexual misconduct are investigated.
The protesters have organized themselves as the Support Group for the Rev. Warren Brice of Sollers and Union Churches.
They say they represent a majority of the two Methodist congregations in the community of Lothian with a total of about 300 members.
Mr. Brice denied the allegations in an interview last night, calling them "trumped up."
He said he was speaking out about the case despite a "gag order" that he said church officials had placed on him.
Mr. Brice said he is accused of abusing his estranged wife, threatening her life and committing adultery.
He added that there are "implications of child abuse."
The minister attributed the allegations to his estranged wife, Juanita, but said others he did not name seized upon them to force him out of the church.
"I'm not angry with my wife," he said. "Somebody saw an 'D opportunity to use it against me. . . . I think there's a conspiracy going on here."
He did not elaborate on why others would conspire against him.
Mr. Brice thanked church members for their support, saying that his suspension has been difficult for him.
"It's a little inhumane to be cut off so totally from your parishioners," he said. "Anytime a crisis arises, any person needs support."
The church members called for a different probe -- into what they said is the unfair treatment of Mr. Brice by Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel and District Superintendent Martin McKinney of the denomination's Baltimore-Washington Conference.
About a dozen members of the Sollers congregation issued a statement calling Mr. Brice "a great scholar, educator, minister, orator and humanitarian."
He "has reached out to all of his parishioners" and "has been an inspiration to all age groups," they said.
Towanda Jones, a member of Union Methodist Church, said, "He is an exceptional role model for our young African-Americans."
Verma Hilson, another member of the support group, said Mr. Brice's two congregations were told March 5 that he had been suspended, effective at that time.
The only reason they were given, Ms. Hilson said, was that "the charges allege sexual misconduct."
Shelia M. Smith, a member of the support group, said congregants believe it is a family matter.
"It's a domestic case that does not involve the church members," she said.
As the result of repeated requests, she said, a meeting of the two congregations with Mr. McKinney is scheduled for 5 p.m. today at Union Methodist Church on Bay Front Road in Lothian.
The Rev. James Skillington, speaking for the Baltimore-Washington Conference, said the careful rules covering such complaints are being followed to the letter.
The minister's suspension with pay "in this instance is understood to be a neutral category, implying neither innocence nor guilt," he said.
L Mr. Skillington said "all parties will receive due process."
The Rev. Barclay Brown, who chairs the Sexual Abuse Task Force of the conference, said it is "actively engaged in responding to the needs of all three parties" -- meaning the complainant, the minister and the congregation.
"We trust that this process is a healing process and we will continue to do our work until there's closure to the case," Mr. Brown said.