A Superior Court judge ruled today that the transfer of Mt. Zion and all property associated with the Oxford church to a third party was unlawful.
The order signed by Superior Court Judge Samuel Ozburn, is in a case that has been ongoing for more than a year. Attorneys for all parties are expected to return to court later this week to discuss further proceedings before a final judgment can be made.
The case stems from a dispute between members and the pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The lawsuit was filed against the deacon, Clayton Dial, and his daughter Angela Ballard by 37 members of the congregation.
The church members accuse Dial of deeding the church and property over to a third party, God's Hope Builders, Inc., an action that Dial never denied. However, he testified that he did that in order to "keep the church from going independent," and to "preserve the church's affiliation with the Stone Mountain Baptist Association and the Southern Baptist Convention."
On the Sunday after the transfer, members of the church arrived to find the doors locked and "no trespassing" signs posted.
The court was asked to decide if all the church property transferred by Dial and Ballard was "in the usual and regular course" of the activities of the church and the court found it was not.
"The reasons stated by defendant Clayton Dial for the transfer clearly show that this transfer was not in the ‘usual and regular course of the activities' of the church," reads the order. "...The unconditional gift of all property of the church to another party in violation of the fiduciary duty owed by the defendants to the church cannot be ‘in the usual and regular course' of the activities of the church."
The order continued, "...conveying all property of the church unconditionally for no consideration to a third party will obviously prevent the church from conducting any activities, much less the very activities for which it was created. Based upon the admitted intention of defendant Clayton Dial in making the transfer, the intention of the defendants was not based upon a good faith belief that it was in the best interests of the church. Therefore, such a transfer cannot be ‘in the usual and regular course' of the activities of the church."
The court was asked to also consider if the members of the church ratified or approved the transfer of all church property to God's Hope Builders, Inc.
"Since Clayton Dial as the sole deacon, obviously approved the transfer, the conveyance of all the church property can be upheld only if it was approved or ratified by a majority of the church membership... the court finds that the defendants (Dial and Ballard) represent a majority of the church membership... however... the conveyance of all of the property of the church by the defendants was not ratified or approved by the church membership... there is no evidence that the members ratified or were even given the opportunity to ratify or vote concerning the transfer... Because of this failure to ratify or approve the transfer, it is unlawful."