President Clinton last month directed the Justice Department to drop its legal support of creditors in a suit against a church that had been ordered to turn over $13,500 in tithes donated by a couple who later filed for bankruptcy.
The trustee for the creditors is trying to obtain contributions given by Bruce and Nancy Young to Crystal Evangelical Free Church in New Hope, Minnesota, during a 12-month span.
Two lower court judges had ruled against the church, saying the tithes constituted a "fraudulent transfer," and the Youngs received "nothing of value" in exchange. In April, the Justice Department filed a brief siding with the creditors.
But on September 14, less than 12 hours before arguments at the three-member Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in Saint Louis, the Justice Department withdrew its legal brief because of the directive. The case is a federal test of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), signed by Clinton last November.
"We are extremely grateful to the President for having the spine and commitment to religious liberty to admit a mistake by his Justice Department and make the call to remove the heavy endorsement of the government," Steven McFarland, director of the Annandale, Virginia-based Center for Law and Religion Freedom told CT.
The Center for Law and Religious Freedom filed three friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the church. In June, McFarland assembled five church-state experts to meet with Clinton to discuss RFRA.
Minneapolis attorney Ken Corey-Edstrom, who represented the church with University of Texas law professor Doug Laycock at the court appeal, credits McFarland's extensive lobbying efforts for convincing Clinton.
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