FARGO – Lawyers for the Norman Evangelical Lutheran Church in rural Kindred are seeking the dismissal of a lawsuit filed against the church by a couple claiming the church defamed them over their views on homosexuality.
Ray and Joan Grabanski of Kindred allege in a lawsuit filed this week in Cass County District Court that leadership of the church, which belongs to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, tried to force them out following a clash between the Grabanskis and the congregation over the search for a new pastor.
The Grabanskis say their beliefs don't match those of the ELCA, which neither endorses nor forbids same-sex marriage or gay clergy, and instead allows each individual congregation to make its own decisions on how to handle those issues.
The lawsuit says when the Grabanskis made their views known, they were subjected to "public ridicule, scorn, intimidation, isolation" by the church leadership, and were told the congregation was too liberal for them.
Joan Grabanski was asked to stop teaching Sunday school, and the couple was told they could leave or be forced out, with church leaders calling them "a cancer," the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit alleges the local synod of the ELCA was aware of the conflict and failed to stop the damaging behavior.
It names the ELCA and the Eastern North Dakota Synod of the ELCA, as well as the church's interim pastor and two other church leaders.
The Grabanskis are asking for more than $50,000 in damages for defamation and emotional distress, plus punitive damages to be possibly pursued later, according to the lawsuit.
Lawyers for the church and church leadership moved Wednesday for the case to be dismissed.
In a brief filed with the court, they argue that the court doesn't have jurisdiction over the religious issues underpinning the case because of the separation of church and state.
"The North Dakota Supreme Court has long recognized civil courts have no jurisdiction to pass upon and decide the doctrinal beliefs of a church or to interpret a church constitution," the brief says.
The allegedly defaming communications between the Grabanskis and the church members also weren't public ones, the brief argues.
Ray Grabanski approached reporters for both The Forum and WDAY in late October, prior to filing the lawsuit, offering what he said were documents and audio recordings of communication between him and other church members, and inviting both news organizations to cover an upcoming church meeting.
Asked about Granbanski's effort to get the media to draw public attention to the controversy, the Grabanskis attorney, Timothy Hill, said in an email to The Forum, "Ray and Joan were simply trying to restore their good names after having already been impugned by the defendants ... They made every effort to keep the matter internal."
Hill said that the underlying issue of the case is not a doctrinal one, but whether church members have the right to discuss those issues without being defamed or ousted.
Pastor Aanen Gjovik declined comment for the story, as did attorneys for the other defendants.
Eastern North Dakota Synod Bishop Terry Brandt issued a statement that said, in part, "I am deeply saddened by the misunderstanding which has occurred between Norman Lutheran and Ray and Joan Grabanski ... the court is not the place for church issues to be resolved."
The case's first hearing has yet to be set.