HASTINGS (AP) -- Part of a Lutheran congregation locked out of its church by a dissenting group has rights to the building, a Dakota County jury decided Monday.
The Missouri Synod congregation of about 100 families has been split over its pastor.
In May 1998, about two-thirds of the congregation -- then called Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church -- voted to oust Pastor Bruce King. He refused a severance package, so the dissenters renamed themselves Hope Lutheran Church, transferred the title of the church building into the new name and changed the locks.
King and about 50 followers, still calling themselves Shepherd of the Valley, had been worshipping at a nearby hotel meeting room. They went to court, seeking the return of the building's title and undisclosed damages.
Shepherd of the Valley attorney Gene Hennig said he hopes King and his followers can move back into the building in as little as 30 days, or as long as it takes for the judge to issue a court order.
''We'd like to be moving back in this afternoon,'' Hennig said Monday. ''But there are many things that come after the jury's decision that need to be taken care of first.''
Besides deciding who has rights to the building, the jury was also asked to decide whether Hope Lutheran members threw King out for no good reason.
Attorneys for Hope Lutheran argued that King had neglected his duties as pastor, which is grounds for dismissal in the church's bylaws. But Shepherd of the Valley attorneys argued that King's strict adherence to ''closed communion,'' in which only synod members can receive the sacrament, was the reason for the split. That difference is doctrinal, and not grounds for dismissal.
The jury agreed that doctrinal differences, not wrongdoing on King's part, caused the separation.
The jury also agreed that Shepherd of the Valley suffered financially and awarded King and his followers more than $7,200 in damages.
Attorneys for Hope Lutheran could not immediately be reached for comment.
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