GREENVILLE - The showdown between the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and Erskine College over who runs the school is headed to the courtroom, with a circuit judge issuing a temporary restraining order handcuffing an interim board of trustees appointed by church leaders last week and summoning the parties to a March 19 hearing.
The order came in response to a lawsuit Erskine filed against the church that founded the school 160 years ago. It alleges that the ARP governing body, the General Synod, violated Erskine's charter and bylaws as well as its own rules in removing 14 trustees and replacing them with 14 others, who were appointed to an interim board along with 16 members of the original board.
The move apparently caught ARP leaders by surprise Thursday. They had said a day earlier in a meeting on campus with students, faculty and alumni that they didn't anticipate any legal action and that the interim board members were selected because they, unlike the original board, agreed with the church's plan to create a smaller permanent board.
The lawsuit was signed by Scott Mitchell, chairman of the board just appointed by the ARP who also had served as chairman of the previous board.
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"I'm just learning what's going on," the Rev. John R. de Witt, moderator of the Greenville-based denomination, said Thursday. He would not comment further.
At stake is the governance of an institution that has produced numerous ministers of a variety of denominations as well as graduates who have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and business leaders in Greenville and across the state, Erskine president Randall T. Ruble said. Only 10 percent of the school's student body in both the college and seminary are members of the conservative evangelical ARP church, according to Erskine spokesman Rick Hendricks.
"The administration does not know what the outcome of this action will be," Hendricks said in a statement, "but will continue to oversee the day-to-day operations of Erskine and will work diligently to ensure students receive the quality educational experience for which Erskine is known."
The issue arose after an investigation into whether the board had been overseeing the college "in faithful accordance with the standards of the ARP Church," according to a report issued by a church commission appointed to look into complaints made by students. Some students described a "culture of intimidation" on campus created by professors who challenged them to question their religious beliefs.
Robert Burnett, a sophomore majoring in history at Erskine, said students are divided on the issue. He opposes the synod's action and hopes the lawsuit will resolve the issue.
"I do think it's a move in the right direction. It's going to give due process," he said. "Everything was fulfilled kind of hastily in the synod. I think this will create a little more clarity for everyone."
David Dangerfield, an Erskine alumnus who moderates a Facebook group critical of the synod's action, said he and other members of the group's more than 1,100 members are pledging donations to help the college with the legal battle if necessary.
"I hate that it's come to this, but it seems like folks were left with no choice. The synod tied their hands," he said. "I don't view this as going after the church. I see this as going after the truth."
Circuit Judge Eugene C. Griffeth issued the restraining order, saying the college could "suffer irreparable harm" if the interim board went ahead with its plans to change the bylaws regarding the composition of the board at a meeting scheduled for Wednesday.
The judge also ordered that a presidential search committee that had been scheduled to meet today not be allowed to meet. Ruble is retiring in June.
The lawsuit claimed that the synod's "unlawful takeover of Erskine" is causing "irreparable damage" to the college's standing with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools and the Association of Theological Schools, through which Erskine is accredited.
The March 19 hearing is scheduled for 11 a.m. at the Newberry County Courthouse.