Evangelist Robert Tilton won a legal victory in January when a jury decided that assets of his Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center in suburban Dallas are not part of his personal assets and cannot be claimed by his estranged wife who is seeking a divorce.

The Dallas jury also ruled that Leigh Tilton, 39, Tilton's second wife and also an evangelist, did not have a right to transfer millions in assets from his church to her own church.

She was ordered to pay Word of Faith $218,000 in legal fees. Her attorneys argued that she should share in the church's assets as a part of the divorce settlement.

"This is a landmark victory for churches everywhere," says Charlie Wilson of Dallas, Robert Tilton's divorce lawyer. The trial was considered a potential test of First Amendment issues because it involved whether the church was Robert Tilton's "alter ego." A district judge from Fort Worth had ruled earlier that the church and Robert Tilton, 50, were so closely tied that their assets could not be separated.

Leigh Tilton was copastor of the church, and her attorneys argued that she should be entitled to a share of church holdings as community property. Leigh Tilton attempted to legally transfer millions in assets, including a $1.6 million parsonage, to her own recently created church.

Robert Tilton filed for divorce from his second wife in November 1995, and the trial is pending. Tilton married Leigh Valentine in 1994 after divorcing his first wife of 25 years, Marte Tilton.

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