CHURCH vs. STATE A Fort Worth pastor says he is entitled to represent
his congregants in legal matters. A Texas Supreme Court panel disagrees.
FORT WORTH - For 29 years, the Rev. Tom Franklin has been on call round-the-clock for his congregation at New Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.
The son of a Louisiana sharecropper and the only pastor his church has ever known, Franklin is the spiritual leader, family counselor and Sunday school teacher for his small, mostly poor flock in southeast Fort Worth.
So when his church was sued for not paying its property taxes years ago, Franklin said, it was only natural for him to act as its attorney in court.
"As long as I'm pastor, I can represent the church," Franklin said. "I represent it on Sunday morning. I represent it at funerals. I represent it at marriages. ... I'm invoking God's authority in my life as a pastor."
Franklin's biblical and secular approach to the law, however, has put him on a collision course with a Texas Supreme Court committee that, in recent years, has seen a jump in complaints about those who practice law without a license.
The court's Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee is suing Franklin in Tarrant County, saying that he improperly represented his church and, in a separate case, tried to persuade an acquaintance to fire his attorney and allow Franklin to step in.
Franklin, in turn, has filed a federal lawsuit in Fort Worth, saying that his civil rights are being violated and that the committee's actions violate the separation of church and state.
But Davis McCown, the Hurst attorney representing the Supreme Court committee in both cases, said Franklin's actions go beyond trying to represent his church and include other attempts to act as an attorney -- a violation of state law that can put the public at risk.
"He is out there telling people that he will go write pleadings," McCown said. "There is no way to really know how many he has done."
The committee has asked a state district judge to issue a temporary restraining order that would prohibit Franklin from acting as an attorney, McCown said. If he violated the order, the minister could be sent to jail.
Under state law, people can represent themselves in court without an attorney by acting "pro se," a Latin term meaning "in his own behalf." But the law prevents a person who is not a lawyer from representing another person or entity in court.
Rapid changes in technology, however, have made it easier for the public to obtain copies of standard legal forms for filing divorces, wills and contracts. Along the way, it has become easier for unqualified individuals to act as lawyers in highly complex legal matters, legal experts said.
Complaints to the state about people practicing law without a license have jumped to 750 a year from about 500 after a special Web site was established about 1 1/2 years ago, officials said.
Franklin, however, said he is being "constantly harassed" by the state.
In a statement, Franklin told the Star-Telegram that as a pastor, he ministers to "people who need assistance in many categories."
The 67-year-old minister is calling on other clergy to stand behind him.
"The answer is, these rebel preachers like me must rise up and stop predators from taking things away from our people," Franklin said in the statement. "We must stop these predators from entering our communities, stealing everything we have."
Lawsuits and taxes
Franklin said his legal woes date to 1975, when his congregation bought the church building from the High View Baptist Church, an all-white congregation that decided to disband and sell the land.
Over the next 11 years, Franklin said, his church struggled to pay off the debt on the land, which is slightly more than 4 acres on the edge of a neighborhood and abuts the sprawling property of Alcon Labs. About half the land contains the church and a parking lot; the other half is vacant.
Soon after the debt was paid off, Franklin said, the Tarrant Appraisal District -- representing Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Everman school district -- again began pursuing payment of back taxes.
In 1993, TAD filed suit, contending that the church owed almost $10,000 in back taxes from 1989 to 1992. Franklin fought back, saying the church didn't pay because it was tax-exempt.
Two years later, a state district judge agreed with Franklin and essentially eliminated the debt.
But the church's troubles were far from over. The appraisal district promptly denied an exemption for the entire property, saying that it intended to levy taxes on the half of the land that was not used for religious purposes -- which officials contended made it ineligible for a tax exemption.
Another round of legal jousting began in 1998, with Franklin acting as the church's attorney.
In those court documents, Franklin said that the taxing authorities were discriminating against his church based on race and that they were refusing to recognize its tax-exempt status because the congregation was primarily black.
TAD and the agencies denied the allegations and asked that the case be thrown out because Franklin was improperly representing the church, according to court records.
Franklin then took his case to the federal courts, saying that the taxing entities had shown that they "do not like black churches and pastors" and that they were "insensitive to the bombing of black churches."
Franklin has said he has sought legal help from several groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
U.S. District Judge Terry Means dismissed Franklin's claims because they were not filed by a licensed attorney. According to court records, attorneys for the Everman school district, one of the taxing entities, called Franklin's racial accusations "outrageous" and "not only offensive but totally unfounded."
"We not only treat all churches but all charitable and religious organizations the same regardless of faith or color or creed," said John Marshall, TAD's chief appraiser.
Meanwhile, state District Judge Tom Lowe delayed dismissing the state case to allow Franklin time to secure counsel and directed a lawyer from a downtown law firm -- who happened to be in court that day -- to help Franklin find legal aid.
No attorney was ever hired.
"How many black churches can pay $125 an hour for attorneys?" Franklin asks.
In 1999, after seven months of delays, Lowe ruled in favor of the appraisal district, a decision that effectively saddled the church with its unpaid tax debt. Appeals were unsuccessful.
The past-due taxes on the church's property total about $27,600, and Franklin said the church is frantically trying to arrange a loan.
"This is God's property," Franklin said. "This is a religious institution. The Constitution says Congress shall pass no law governing religion.
"So why are they trying to govern God's church through taxation?"
Beyond the pulpit
Franklin's name has surfaced in other lawsuits, officials said.
Dallas lawyer Raul Loya met Franklin while Loya was representing Bennie Gibson, who sued Bell Helicopter Textron in an employment case that included charges of discrimination.
Loya had helped Gibson win a $4 million judgment, but the jury award was being appealed.
Gibson and Franklin had worked together at Bell Helicopter before Franklin became a minister. Franklin said he helped his friend deal with the pressure of the lengthy litigation and even loaned him money.
Officials said he went further than that. In a complaint he filed with the state, Gibson said that Franklin and another man approached him and recommended that he fire Loya and hire the minister to write legal briefs for the appeal.
"Mr. Franklin approached me and stated that he was familiar with the land and legal proceedings," according to a sworn statement that Gibson submitted to the state.
Gibson said he paid Franklin and his friend $50 for some advice but later declined their representation. Gibson said he knew that Franklin provided legal help to others.
Loya said Gibson eventually resolved his case with Bell Helicopter for an undisclosed amount. He said he also defended Gibson in a separate civil case in which Franklin tried to collect nearly $26,000 -- $10,000 from a loan, $10,800 in interest and $5,000 in legal fees.
In December 2002, state District Judge Don Cosby threw that case out.
"He's copying pleadings from other cases and using them in his," Loya said. "He was an extreme pain for my client."
Gibson's complaint is at the center of the state's case against Franklin.
Franklin said that he lent Gibson money to keep him from losing his house while the Bell Helicopter case was on appeal but that Gibson "never paid me a dime."
"I've been ripped off so [much] you wouldn't believe," Franklin said. "He's the boy pushing this thing and it's very unfair."
The fight continues
State officials said the case against Franklin would have already been resolved if he had signed what is known as a "sin no more letter," agreeing to stop practicing law without a license.
Arlington lawyer Don Hase, chairman of the state's local subcommittee on the unauthorized practice of law, said most people accused of practicing law without a license agree to stop doing so, and the investigation is closed.
But state officials said Franklin has not cooperated with their attempts to resolve the dispute. In August 2002, Franklin did not adequately respond to a questionnaire issued by the local subcommittee to explain his conduct or deny the allegations, according to court records.
Franklin later ignored a March subpoena to appear before the committee, which led to the lawsuit being filed against him in December, records indicate.
Hase and others said they are not singling Franklin out or prosecuting such complaints out of economic self-interest. They said they are trying to protect the unsuspecting public from mistakes that nonlawyers can make.
"Would you want unlicensed doctors doing surgery?" asked James Blume, former chairman of the Unauthorized Practice of Law Committee. "Have anyone hang out a shingle and cut someone open? If you don't regulate attorneys in the same way, you will get the same kind of bad results.
"The whole point is to protect the public, who is not sophisticated enough to know what they are getting," he said.
If the state obtains a court order against Franklin, the minister could be found in contempt of court and jailed if he persisted.
In the meantime, however, Franklin's federal lawsuit will force a delay in the state's efforts, and Franklin said he will continue to lead his church from the pulpit and in the courtroom.
"It is unfortunate that things are not designed today for the good of people," Franklin said in his statement. "But the system that we have will not allow poor people, without money, to be heard before the courts in our land."
In an interview, Franklin said he's not afraid that his church will falter if he goes to jail for his beliefs.
"God's church is going to exist whether I'm here or not," he said. "The church is bigger than one man or one nation."
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