A jury has found that minister Ralph G. Stair and his Overcomer Ministries misled 11 former members concerning how their donations were to be used. If a planned appeal fails, the verdict will cost Stair $731,679.64.
The jury unanimously awarded the plaintiffs $274,163 in actual damages and charged Stir another $457,516.64 in punitive damages.
"Every single one of them is a liar," said Stair when asked about the verdict. "It's all in the Lord's hands."
Stair and his lawyer Mathias Chaplin, who has offices in Columbia and Walterboro, plan to appeal the decision.
The donations in question were not of the kind that are dropped into offering plates during your typical Sunday morning service.
Overcome Ministries, which is based in Canadys, is a religious community where members live, work and raise their children. According to the organization's rules, new members can only move to the community after they accept Stair as the "last day prophet," take a vow of poverty and donate all their property and financial assets to the ministry.
The former members allege that they donated their money because they were told that it would only be used to fund Stair's internationally popular evangelical short-wave radio program. After leaving the church, the former members say, they realized that the money had been directed to other purposes, and filed suit in 2002.
Several of the plaintiffs left Stairs' ministry after he admitted to committing adultery in 2001.
At the time he was charged with raping two women, but the charges were later dropped, and Stair pleaded guilty to two counts of assault and was sentenced to 30 days in jail.
In the case at trial, the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Sip Utsey of Walterboro submitted stacks of documents obtained from the church's financial records. Ins testimony on behalf of the plaintiffs, a forensic accountant said that the documents showed that money that had been donated to the church was used to pay for Stair's legal fees, speeding tickets, the construction of another religious community in Tennessee, and financial investments.
To prove that the former members had been mislead about the destination of their donations, Utsey submitted into evidence letters that Overcomer Ministries had sent to its congregation. One letter, received by former member Kevin Nevin, was dated June 1996 and read, "If the Lord wills, do send an offering to pay for the cost of radio and remember that God doth love a cheerful giver."
Another letter, dated December 1, 1997, read, "Thank you for your offering, as always it will be used to pay for outreach onto all the earth."
In the trial, Chaplin said that the members had chosen to join Overcomer Ministries of their own free will, and should not be allowed to ask for their money back.
"There are some disgruntled people that came to Walterboro looking for a particular lifestyle and they believe that it hasn't been afforded them," said Chaplin in the closing arguments.
"And the reason it wasn't afforded to them is that they believe that their leader has fallen and their leader isn't perfect. But it was their choice to believe that, it was their choice to come to Walterboro."
Chaplin also argued that the trial was about religious freedom, particularly the right of churches to govern themselves. "Traditionally, churches have handled their own disputes internally, and haven't attempted to bring matters such as these to a court of law for obviously constitutional reasons--separation of church and state," said Chaplin in an interview.
"Mr. Stair was not able to pull the wool over their (the jury) eyes like does with a lot of people," [one plaintiff named] Pearl said. "We stood up to the man, and told him, 'You're not going to control us no more, you have no control over us, you're doing wrong, and we're going to tell you that you're doing wrong."
The defense attorney, Chaplin, said that the jury had done "it's best" but that he, along with co-counsel Paulette Edwards, would soon file an appeal on "numerous grounds."