DENVER — The Colorado Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that El Paso County church members had no right to have police remove their pastor during a dispute over spiritual leadership.
The appeals court said Senior Pastor Willie J. Sutton Jr. was improperly dismissed by dissident members of the St. John's Baptist Church, who formed a separate Governing Board in 2011 and ordered Sutton to leave and not come back.
Sutton was hired in 2008 by the church's Deacon Board, which had control over the hiring and firing of the church's senior pastor at the time. After the court ruling in 2013 giving the Governing Board legal authority, the Governing Board also dismissed the deacons.
The ousted church members formed their own church, called the Original St. John's Baptist Church, which has about 200 members and meets where it can find room these days, said Adam L. Weitzel, Sutton's attorney.
The church was founded in the late 19th century and is the oldest African-American church in El Paso County. Before the court fight began in 2009, the church was governed by decades-old bylaws, a church covenant and articles of faith.
Weitzel said the court order barring Sutton from his pulpit came without warning.
"I got a call one night from Sutton telling me police were there to remove him from the church, and I told him not to resist," Weitzel said.
Sutton said he was unaware of the ruling when he went to the church and was physically removed by police. Church officials changed the locks on the doors and also posted a sign warning him and other church members not to come back, Weitzel said.
Sutton left voluntarily, and no charges were filed.
Weitzel said the church had about 260 members before the court fight began.
An attorney for the Governing Board did not return a phone call seeking comment.
The Governing Board told the judge the church was incorporated decades ago and had never deeded or transferred legal control to any other group. The Governing Board said it was formed in 2012 for "investigating matters on behalf of the church, interpreting and adjudicating (church disputes), and bringing civil actions against those who harmed the church."
Court documents released Thursday did not reveal any details on any investigations or people who harmed the church.
The appeals court said a lower-court judge had no business interfering in a religious dispute before deciding who officially owns the church.
"The court made a decision regarding ecclesiastical internal governance and organization; it determined for the church who represented its interest, a governing decision belonging only to the church," the court noted in its opinion.
The court also ruled that the new governing body failed to show that it was authorized by the church. The court said actual ownership of the church could not be determined, and the trial court should review deeds, articles of incorporation, bylaws and other documents before deciding who owns the property.