Rutherfordton -- The Word of Faith Fellow-ship has responded to a lawsuit filed by one of the organization's former members alleging she was the victim of false imprisonment and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
In answers filed Monday with the Rutherford County Clerk of Superior Court, attorneys for the WOFF, senior pastor Jane Whaley and church member Kim Waites deny the allegations made by Holly Hamrick and ask a judge to dismiss the suit on the grounds of religious freedom.
Hamrick, a Rutherford County native, was a member of the Spindale-based church for nine months, from May 2001 until February 2002.
While she is not the first former member to allege that she was the victim of spiritual abuse while involved in the organization, she was the first such person to state those claims in a civil lawsuit against the church.
In late February, a second former member, Lacy Wien, filed a similar suit against the church, Whaley and several other members of the organization's leadership. Answers in that complaint are due later this spring.
Rutherfordton attorney Peter E. Lane is representing both Hamrick and Wien.
In Hamrick's suit, attorneys Douglas M. Martin and Rebecca B. Wofford of Poyner & Spruill in Charlotte are representing the church, Whaley and Waites. Hendersonville attorney Frank B. Jackson is representing Whaley individually and former District Court Judge Tom Hix of Hendersonville is representing Waites.
In the answers to Hamrick's complaint, the defendants answer each of the claims made against them. The defendants also seek dismissal of the claim for intentional infliction of emotional distress on the grounds that "the alleged activities constituted defendants' worship and free exercise of religion" is protected by the state Constitution.
The defendants also claim their actions are protected by the free exercise clause of the First Amendment "which prohibits courts from interfering with church decisions or actions relating to faith, doctrine, discipline, internal organization, ecclesiastical rule, custom or law. Further inquiry by the Court into such decisions or actions by Word of Faith Fellowship or its members which are complained of by (Ham-rick) would violate the First Amendment. Moreover, statements made by Word of Faith Fellowship members are protected religious speech and cannot be the basis of any claim against Word of Faith Fellowship or any of its members."
Hamrick's suit states that within a few months of joining the church she was living in Waites' household, was following the church's strict rules regarding social interactions, adhered to the church's dress code, was subjected to the church's rigorous discipline policies for perceived transgressions and sins and went almost no-where without other WOFF members who guarded her.
The suit alleges that Hamrick, now 22, was subject to numerous instances of "blasting" prayers aimed at driving demons from her body, was "repeatedly disciplined by being forced to watch hours upon hours of videotapes of (Whaley's) lectures" and "spent many hours working on projects without compensation that benefitted the known leadership of the (WOFF) and not the (WOFF) itself."
In their answer to the complaint, WOFF, Whaley and Waites deny the claims, stating that Hamrick was informed that the "Word of Faith Fellowship had a dress code which prohibited the wearing of tight jeans or revealing clothes to its church or school."
In the answers, the defendants also characterize the practice referred to by Hamrick as "blasting" prayers as "loud prayer" or "strong prayer."
The WOFF has been at the focus of increasing attention since last December when a Florida woman who is a former member of the church mounted a public campaign to reclaim custody of her four minor children from a church pastor and his wife. That case is expected to go to trial later this year.