RALEIGH — When they’re in session, roughly 25 members of the state House and Senate meet Monday afternoons in Room 1425 of the Legislative Building, musing on the book of James or the gospel of John in a weekly Bible study.
Sen. Neal Hunt, R-Raleigh, has often attended – squeezing 45 minutes of prayer and meditation into a hectic week of debate.
But while the members consider the teachings of Jesus, a jaw-socking legal brawl is raging in the background.
It pits two ministries – one based in Raleigh, one in California – in a battle for the souls of statehouses across the nation.
A furious string of lawsuits alleges cyber-squatting, hacking, unfair competition and deceptive trade practices.
The players include an ex-center for the Dallas Mavericks, and the stakes involve millions in donations. But the outcome will trickle down to 16 W. Jones St., where North Carolina’s leaders go to pray.
“I’m very disheartened by it,” said Jim Young, national director for the Raleigh-based Capitol Commission. “I love this man we’re in conflict with. I truly do. He won’t give up our name.”
Both sides agree theirs isn’t the most Christian way to handle matters. The case is set to go to mediation later this month.
“We tried many times to solve this thing outside the secular court,” said Ralph Drollinger, founder of the California-based Capitol Ministries. “They sued us first, and it’s unconscionable. We’re going to put the whole cloth out there.”
He added that he is bound by the courts not to comment except to correct misinformation.
Capitol Ministries is the older group, started by Drollinger, a former center on one of John Wooden’s legendary UCLA basketball teams. He went on to a brief, injury-scarred career with the Dallas Mavericks before starting his ministry.
To date, Drollinger’s group operates in California, Washington, D.C., and statehouses in about six other capitals nationwide.
It is endorsed by Minnesota congresswoman and onetime Republican presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann.
But the ministry has sparked controversy in its home state. Drollinger drew protests for writing that women in public office who have young children at home were “sinful.”
Several female senators carried toasters and wore aprons with a scarlet “M” for mother in protest. In another flap, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told Drollinger to move his ministry out of the governor’s suite of offices after calling Catholicism a “false religion.”
Drollinger now says those statements were taken out of context.
Young, who headed Drollinger’s North Carolina ministry until 2009, said such statements didn’t fuel his desire to split off from Capitol Ministries.
He called Drollinger’s remarks “foolish,” but said the discord between them had more to do with Drollinger’s financial leadership and disregard for his own board, members of which began to defect. Drollinger’s home church in California also broke with him, calling him not biblically qualified for Christian ministry.
“I know that behavior was unbefitting for walking with God,” Young said. “There wasn’t one bottom line. Men whom I highly respected, when they began to leave, when they began to resign, there had to be serious stuff going on.”
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Young’s group, Capitol Commission, started in 2009. Its federal 990 tax forms from 2010 show its total contributions and grants at $1.1 million, more than triple the previous year.
Today, its website carries endorsements from U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk and other conservative legislators.
Bible studies meet weekly during the session, and prayer breakfasts are held once a month.
“It’s a pretty good crowd,” Hunt, the Raleigh senator, said. “Typically, about 25 people attend. It’s basically people go around and read Bible verses and discuss them. Totally just Bible study.”
But in May 2011, the court paper started flying.
From Raleigh, Capitol Commission sued in federal court, accusing Drollinger’s group of:
• using its name for its own ministry, placing it on its website and in a blog;
• buying up Web domains with similar names, in one case only a letter apart, aiming to confuse donors and direct them to their own site.
“Defendant intentionally registered (the domain names) with a bad faith intent to divert consumers to defendant’s website and to profit from the plaintiff’s mark,” the suit said.
As this unfolded, Capitol Ministries reported a sharp drop-off in donations and grants – down from $1.6 million to $496,000, according to its 990 tax form filed for 2010.
In its counter-claim, filed in February, Capitol Ministries denied all of Capitol Commission’s allegations and launched its own attack, suing not only the ministry but Young and three others.
Their suit accused defendants of:
• secretly intercepting emails and telephone communication from Drollinger and his wife;
• scheming to persuade employees to join them in a rival ministry;
• taking Capitol Ministry’s donor list and training manuals;
• adopting a name that was confusingly similar; and
• using the same dome-style logo in its website and letterhead.
The defendants “executed a scheme to use confidential information of Capitol Ministries and fair and deceptive practices to orchestrate the en masse resignations of the majority of Capitol Ministries’ state directors,” the suit said.
Drollinger’s group sought both compensatory and punitive damages.
Since then, the motions and counter-claims have piled up, leading to this month’s scheduled mediation.
In Raleigh, Young notes that a mediation has no bite without an agreement between the parties.
Chances seem slim for the ministries to settle their dispute, as Corinthians advises, in the church.