LOWER MANHATTAN — The former president of Trinity Church’s Congregational Council has slapped his embattled church with a lawsuit, asking a court to intervene in a bitter dispute over last April’s controversial election for board seats.
The legal wrangling is the latest move by congregants pushing for grassroots change in what some claim is the church's corrupt leadership.
In a suit filed Monday in Manhattan Supreme Court, Trinity congregant Jeremy Bates says he and other churchgoers voted against the entire slate of 22 vestry, or board members, up for election last April by literally writing in “no” on the ballot, even though there was no space to express opposition to the candidates.
Bates says in court documents that he believes the “no” votes were never counted, though legally they should have been, according to the 315-year-old church’s 17th-century charter.
April’s election came amid a torrent of criticism against the church’s rector and chief executive officer, the Rev. James Cooper. Church members have accused Cooper of overspending church funds on Bach concerts and other events, and planning an opulent overhaul of the church's office space at 68-74 Trinity Place instead of focusing on the church's ministry and helping the poor.
Nearly half of the church’s board of director’s resigned last year in protest of Cooper's leadership.
Bates and others, meanwhile, bucked hundreds of years of tradition and pushed for a competitive election of the 2012 board as a chance to express their views on the future direction of the church, and on Cooper's tenure.
But Trinity's leaders said there was not enough time to pick additional candidates before the April 10 election.
So, the selection of the board went through Trinity's typical process — the vestry was chosen at a small closed-door meeting and then ratified by the congregation as a whole, on ballots that only had space for check marks.
But Bates and other church members say that each written-in "no" should count as an opposition vote in the election.
“Last year the church’s governance process broke down,” Bates, a litigator who’s chosen to represent himself in the suit, said in an interview Wednesday. “That caused us to want to vote ‘no’ and so we voted ‘no.’"
Even though the vestry candidates were running unchallenged, "members of the church should be able to vote against vestry candidates,” Bates added.
Trinity, though, believes that in an uncontested election, "no" votes don't count, and even a single vote in favor of a candidate is enough to get that person confirmed for the vestry, according to church documents that Bates submitted with his lawsuit.
Bates is asking the court to force the church to use a new ballot in the 2013 election, which clearly allows members to vote “no” for a candidate.
He also wants Trinity to give him a copy of its financial statement, which, he says in court papers, he has a right to see as a member of the congregation.
A Trinity spokeswoman said the church does not comment on pending legal matters.
The vestry is charged with overseeing Trinity's mission as a Lower Manhattan community church, a major real estate company managing 6 million square feet in Hudson Square and a philanthropic organization donating millions of dollars to projects across the globe each year. It’s estimated that Trinity’s real-estate holdings are in excess of $1 billion.
While courts do not rule on religious matters, disputes about church leadership and policies can be brought to a judge because churches are largely treated as nonprofit corporations under the law, said Erin Lloyd, a lawyer who handles civil and commercial cases.