The Rev. John A. Cherry broke away from his large Prince George's County church to form a new church in July 1999 after, he says, he heard God using "an almost audible voice," telling him to "Get out of Zion and get out now."
Tomorrow, Maryland's highest legal authority will consider whether Cherry and his new congregation can continue to use $39 million worth of property, including the church buildings and a Learjet, acquired by his former denomination, African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
In a case with possible ramifications for other large religious organizations, the Court of Appeals is scheduled to hear arguments by Cherry's church and AME Zion, which both claim ownership of the property.
The court will rule on whether Cherry and his new Temple Hills congregation, From the Heart Church Ministries, can keep the property and assets acquired while part of the AME Zion denomination for 18 years. In March, the Prince George's County Circuit Court ruled in favor of AME Zion.
The Court of Appeals instructed in April that the property, which includes a school, computers and church buildings, will stay with From the Heart until the state high court makes a ruling.
In 1981, Cherry founded his local church, formerly known as Full Gospel AME Zion Church. Since that time, it has grown from 22 members worshiping in a converted furniture store to a 24,000-member church.
In 1995, the church drew national attention when President Clinton invited Cherry and his wife to the State of the Union address to recognize their commitment to Christian principles.
"It's of considerable value and importance to the community," Jack Lipson, who is representing From the Heart, said of the church.
But after almost two decades with AME Zion and before he says he heard God's voice, Cherry apparently started the process of breaking away from the denomination, according to court records. In June 1998, without informing AME Zion, the Full Gospel board of trustees passed a resolution that changed the church's name to From the Heart and transferred all the assets and liabilities of Full Gospel to From the Heart, the court records state. And in July 1999, Cherry and Steven E. Murray, From the Heart's counsel, signed a deed transferring all of Full Gospel's property for $1, according to AME Zion's lawyers.
James E. Ferguson II, general council for AME Zion based in Charlotte, N.C., contended that From the Heart had no authority to do that. He said before transferring assets and liabilities, the board is supposed to get permission from Bishop Milton A. Williams Sr., presiding bishop of the Philadelphia-Baltimore Annual Conference, which includes Full Gospel.
"I thought we were very good friends," Williams said. "So this was very deceptive to me."
AME Zion Church, which has more than 1 million members in more than 3,000 congregations in the United States, didn't find out about the transfer until July 1999 when Cherry told AME Zion officials that he was withdrawing from the denomination and that most of the 24,000 members were following.
"He sent a letter to me saying God had told him to get out of the church. ... But he had already gotten out," Williams said.
The denomination responded by asking him to return Full Gospel's property. But Cherry refused. Instead, in August 1999, From the Heart filed a lawsuit seeking a declaration of ownership rights to Full Gospel's property. AME Zion then responded with a countersuit.
Ferguson said the property clearly belongs to AME Zion. He said the church's Book of Discipline, which governs the church, states that all congregations' property is held in trust for the use and benefit of AME Zion membership.
Ferguson said Cherry promised to follow the rules in the Book of Discipline when he applied in 1981 to be Full Gospel's first pastor and when he renewed his vow annually for the next 18 years. Furthermore, Ferguson said, Cherry's congregation also took an oath to follow the rules of the book.
"This case threatens the ability of a denominational church to bind its members by the rules," he said. "It affects all hierarchical churches."
Cherry declined to comment on this case.
But Lipson, his lawyer, said that AME Zion never sought to enforce any kind of trust provisions and that From the Heart never consented to a trust arrangement. Additionally, he said, the Book of Discipline does not instruct that church property should return to AME Zion if a local church withdraws from the denomination.
He said From the Heart acquired all the property on its own and paid for it with contributions from the church's members.
"It's our property, we've always maintained it as our property," Lipson said. "The deeds to our property were always in our name."
AME Zion has won support from other groups, including the Maryland Catholic Conference, Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, the Worldwide Church of God and the Finance and Administration arm of the United Methodist Church. The churches filed a friend-of-the-court brief to show their support for AME Zion.
Mary Logan, general counsel for the General Council on Finance and Administration of the United Methodist Church, said the church became involved because the outcome will affect a number of religious denominations. She said that AME Zion's property rules are similar to those of other religious organizations and that denominations have a First Amendment right to set their own rules on religious issues. This case threatens both aspects, she said.
If the court rules for From the Heart, the result may be that "disgruntled persons in other denominations in Maryland would see this case as an opportunity for them to try to rewrite the rules of their churches," Logan said. "Or in non-property cases, it might try to encourage people to ignore the rules of their particular denomination."
But Lipson said the friend-of-the-court brief is not pertinent because the case only deals with AME Zion and From the Heart.
Another Prince George's County case involving a breakaway church is pending. In November, a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. C. Anthony Muse, abandoned a $6 million building housing the Resurrection Prayer Worship Center in Brandywine and formed his own church, the Ark of Safety Christian Center in Oxon Hill. He was sued by attorneys for his former congregation, which accused him of leaving them with a $6 million debt on the building and of taking church assets with him.
Sun staff writer John Rivera contributed to this article.