A family court hearing yesterday in upstate New York may seem far removed from a federal lawsuit filed last week in Baltimore, but the two are inextricably linked by bonds of emotion, blood and faith.
In the New York case, a Nigerian man is seeking visitation rights to children he fears he may never see again, after being kicked out of a religious group called the Bruderhof. Two other cases involving Nigerians excommunicated from the Bruderhof also are pending.
In the Baltimore lawsuit, an air charter service with ties to the Bruderhof is suing a Gaithersburg man for defamation for publicly speculating that the air service spirited the four children and their mothers to Pennsylvania and Great Britain to prevent them from appearing in the Ulster County, N.Y., Family Court.
"Speculation continues to mount today in regards to whether Rifton Aviation Services...may have flown four children and their mothers out of the country in order to prevent them from appearing" in court, the Gaithersburg man, S. Blair Purcell, wrote in a self-styled "press release" posted on the Internet Aug. 16.
Rifton Aviation filed the defamation action eight days later. It claims the release was posted where its clients could see it and had caused the company to become an object of public wrath and ridicule.
Purcell said in an interview that he has never been a Bruderhof member, but his wife left the community in her teens, and his in-laws are still members.
Purcell and his attorney, James C. Strouse, declined to comment on the matter, but a lawyer for one of the Nigerian men said Purcell's statements were true.
The Bruderhof "is what it is and the tentacles are just getting bigger and bigger," said Cappy Weiner, the lawyer for Joseph Idiong.
But Christian P. Domer, president and CEO of Rifton Aviation as well as president of the Bruderhof Communities of New York Inc., denies there is anything sinister about the group - a Hutterite sect with a 300-acre commune, known as Woodcrest, as its home base in Rifton, N.Y.
"We are a religious group originally incorporated in the U.S.A. in 1954 as an apostolic, communal group that pools resources and runs businesses for the benefit of the group and its interests," Domer said.
He characterized Purcell's statements as part of a crusade by former members and outsiders to disparage the Bruderhof and its business interests.
"Throughout recorded history, people who stood up for their religious convictions have been maligned, persecuted and destroyed," Domer added.
The one thing everyone familiar with the case can agree on is that it is emotionally charged.
The three Nigerian men are cousins. Joseph Idiong, Basil Ebong and Ebong Ebong, all in their 30s, married and had children with Bruderhof mission women at the group's Palm Grove mission in Nigeria, jointly established by the Rifton Bruderhof and a traditional Hutterite group in South Dakota called the Schmiedeleut.
But the Nigerian mission failed, and the men were expelled when they came to live in the Rifton, N.Y., community.
According to Weiner, the Bruderhof has kept the men from seeing their wives and children in the three years since the expulsion.
"There's no doubt in anyone's mind that they're putting hurdles in front of these men to keep them away from their children," Weiner said. "They've even moved to dismiss the case on the grounds it should be litigated in England." In mid-July, Weiner said, his client met with Bruderhof officials in New York to negotiate an arrangement for visiting his children.
"Two days later, they moved his wife and child to England," Weiner said. "At first they said it was just a coincidence, that they needed a teacher in England and [Idiong's wife] was available."
He said the group later all but admitted that it had moved the three cousins' wives and children to keep the men away from them. "We don't have any doubt that we're going to have to chase these people down," Weiner said.
Yesterday's hearing in New York involved a determination over which court had jurisdiction over the three cases. One of the fathers agreed to have his case heard in Pennsylvania. Judge Mary M. Work, who is hearing the case in Ulster County Family Court, is expected to rule tomorrow on the other two petitions.
To one expert on the Bruderhof, the fact that they would engage in litigation at all, let alone initiate a defamation suit, is a "remarkable" departure from their Hutterite roots.
Like the Mennonites and Amish, the Hutterites are Anabaptists: "rebaptizers" who repudiated infant baptism in conceiving a voluntary church free of state control
"The Anabaptist faith commitment prevents them from using the state or courts of law to sue - or even to defend themselves," says Julius H. Rubin, a sociology professor at St. Joseph's College in West Hartford, Conn.
Rubin is the author of "The Other Side Of Joy: Religious Melancholy Among the Bruderhof," a book published earlier this year by Oxford University Press - only after a $15.5 million defamation suit against him by the Bruderhof's corporate arm was dismissed and the book had been vetted by Oxford's English and American lawyers.
Domer contends the group has had to acknowledge that the courts are a reality of American society, if only to be used as a last resort.
Among other suits filed by the sect have been a federal trademark action that led to the disbanding of an opposition group called Children of the Bruderhof International, and a state suit against CBS seeking a reporter's notes, unedited video tapes and materials used in a report critical of the Bruderhof. The report aired on "48 Hours" in March 1997. That case was dismissed the following August.
"We don't relish going to the courts," Domer said. "But the Bible says that government is instituted by God - and there has to be a recognition of our place in society. Life isn't static. These are the kinds of issues we grapple with, and there's no cut-and-dried answer that makes it clear on a religious basis that the courts should not be used.
"We've been very blessed, very happy," he added. "We're just going to have to deal with this - that's a part of life."