Presbyterian Denomination Enjoined from Dismissing College's Trustees

The conservative Presbyterian denomination that founded Erskine College in South Carolina is being enjoined from dismissing members of the school's Board of Trustees after it had attempted to remove nearly half of them from the board last month.

On Friday, Circuit Court Judge Eugene Griffith ordered that a preliminary injunction be granted in the case brought against the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church's highest court, the General Synod, by three members of the Erskine Board of Trustees and the Erskine Alumni Association.

In his order, Griffith said the plaintiffs "have met the burden required of them for entry of a preliminary injunction" and "have demonstrated an imminent prospect of irreparable harm if an injunction is not granted, a likelihood of success on the merits and the inadequacy of any legal remedy."

That said, the judge concluded that it is "appropriate to enter a preliminary injunction to maintain the status quo as it existed prior to the General Synod's March 3, 2010 actions."

On March 3, the ARP Church's General Synod approved measures to dismiss 14 members of Erskine's 30-member board and appoint 14 more to form a new, interim board that would be tasked to revise the school's bylaws.

The synod had stepped in to make the change after a specially formed committee presented a report on what it found as it investigated claims of doctrinal drift among the faculty both in the liberal arts college and in the denomination's seminary.

Shortly after the report was made public, the General Synod voted 2-1 to replace the existing board of the college and seminary with a board more likely to reflect the denomination's more conservative stance.

While the school was established by the Associate Reformed Synod of the South as an academy for men in 1839, it has since grown to become its own institution and today reportedly receives only about two percent of its income through the denomination.

Still, the denomination took up the task of intervening in the direction of the 170-year-old school, leading to a lawsuit from board chairman Scott Mitchell – who later withdrew the suit at the request of the school's executive committee – and the present lawsuit from the Erskine College Alumni Association and the board members that were removed.

Under Friday's court order, the denomination's General Synod and its representatives are enjoined from removing, or attempting or purporting to remove the Board of Trustees of Erskine; appointing any new Trustee of Erskine, except for annual appointment of five trustees to fill expiring terms; convening or encouraging the convening of any group other than the existing board that claims to be the Board of Erskine; declaring any group other than the existing board to be the Board of Erskine; and/or engaging in any transaction or activity in which it purports to control or act for or on behalf of Erskine, or purports to control or dispose of the property, funds, or other assets of Erskine.

Griffith said Friday that the injunction would remain in effect until modified by the court.

"The plaintiffs are entitled to maintenance of the status quo pending resolution of this matter," he added.

Located in Due West, S.C., Erskine College presently has 40 full-time faculty and nearly 600 students.

The Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, which consists of some 30,000 members in over 200 congregations, is a small theologically and socially conservative denomination considered to be one of the oldest denominations in the United States.

According to the denomination's website, Erskine College is considered to be an ARP ministry, one of several established "to enable it to carry on the mission of God in Christ's Church by word and deed in the General Synod, the congregation, the presbytery, and the whole world."

Representatives for the church body were not immediately available for comment.

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