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Judge dismisses claims against church leaders

A Mecklenburg County judge Thursday dismissed the claims of a former Charlotte official of the United House of Prayer who accused the top leaders of the congregation of wrecking his marriage.

In his lawsuit, the Rev. Ronald Belton described a church atmosphere of rigged national elections, political infighting and millions of dollars raised by House of Prayer congregations that is sent to post office boxes in Charlotte, long a center of activities for the Washington, D.C., based church.

Whether a jury hears any of those accusations is now in question. Superior Court Judge Robert Ervin threw out Belton’s remaining claims against the House of Prayer’s presiding Bishop C.M. Bailey and its former first lady, Deloris Beal “St. Lady” Madison.

Church attorney Robert Dortch argued that Belton and his attorney failed to prove that a North Carolina court could hear the case against Bailey because he lives in Maryland and doesn’t own property in Charlotte or the state.

According to Dortch, a key conversation during which Belton says Bailey and Madison tried to persuade Belton’s estranged wife to divorce him took place in Georgia.

Ervin agreed and dropped the claims against the bishop. He then sided with Dortch’s contention that Madison, the widow of a former House of Prayer bishop, was not properly served with the complaint.

“The defendants are pleased with the court’s ruling,” Dortch said outside the courtroom. “We’re moving on to another fight.”

Belton had originally sued the church and its leaders claiming breach of contract, wrongful discharge and alienation of affection, claiming that Bailey wrongfully fired him in 2012 and then conspired with Madison to end his marriage.

Ervin threw out the claims against the church a month ago, forcing Belton’s attorney Paul Whitfield to prove that Bailey and Madison had enough personal connections to the state for a state court to have jurisdiction.

Whitfield told the judge that Bailey and Madison single-handedly control tens of millions of dollars in church tithes, rents and other sources of income, and that a sizable portion is funneled to Charlotte to avoid federal tax scrutiny. County tax records indicate the church owns property here valued at $15 million, including a 16,000-square-foot home where Bailey stays when visiting the Carolinas.

In the end, none of that could be connected personally to the bishop.

Whitfield told Ervin that he had tried to serve Madison at the House of Prayer’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., instead of her home, and that Madison’s stepson signed for the delivery. In a sworn statement cited by Dortch, Madison said she never received it.

After the ruling, Whitfield attributed Ervin’s ruling to the general reluctance of North Carolina courts to get involved with church disputes. He said he and his client must now decide whether to refile the case, possibly in federal court or along constitutional grounds.

The House of Prayer, with about 1.2 million members nationwide, has between 15 and 20 churches in the Charlotte area. The city was selected to be a main branch of the church by its founder, the legendary Bishop Charles Manual “Sweet Daddy” Grace.

Bailey is the fourth bishop in the church’s history. Belton, who said he was a member of the inner circle of Bailey’s predecessor, claims he was fired because Bailey was jealous of his popularity.

Researcher Maria David contributed

Gordon: 704-358-5095
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