Rhonda Morrison's UPC Experience
Some may also be interested in a similar situation with the Angela Driver case.
The following account was taken from various newspaper reports concerning the lawsuit and trial. It was not submitted by any individual involved in the case, which should be evident from the comments written near the end of this article. However, since some on an apostolic bulletin board group have voiced that it was, I have included this opening paragraph to put this rumor to rest.
On Sunday evening, July 10, 1994, Pastor Ernest G. Bass announced to his congregation that the church music director, Rhonda J. Martens, was involved in lesbian activity. Approximately 90 people were in attendance at the First United Pentecostal Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Pastor Bass has, and continues to, serve as a presbyter in the Oklahoma District of the United Pentecostal Church.
Rhonda and Stephen Martens were members of the First United Pentecostal Church, though Rhonda had not signed the church roster that year, which would declare that she was a member. Stephen Martens was a licensed minister in the United Pentecostal Church. The records show that prior to the church announcement by the pastor, Rhonda was encountering sexual problems in her marriage and her husband had counseled with the pastor. Pastor Bass allegedly questioned Stephen about the possibility that Rhonda was a lesbian.
Stephen Martens wanted a divorce, and sought counsel from Pastor Bass once more. He said he felt his wife was a lesbian but the pastor needed proof in order that Stephen's license in the organization would not be brought under question. According to UPCI guidelines, if a minister "has been divorced for any cause save fornication or adultery on the part of the one from whom he or she has been divorced, and has remarried" they shall not be eligible for license with the UPC. (Article 7, Section 8:1) There are also several steps which are supposed to be taken when this is alleged. The minister's personal testimony is to be given in writing and there are to be at least two testimonies of other reliable witnesses in writing.
Stephen then hired a private detective and allegedly confronted his wife about the affair. He returned to his pastor and stated that she had confessed the affair and Pastor Bass gave approval for the divorce. According to the reports I have seen, Pastor Bass never questioned or counseled Rhonda about his own thoughts of her being a lesbian, nor after her husband said she had confessed to this. Without consulting either Stephen or Rhonda, Pastor Bass made the church announcement in order to "extinguish the rumors and let the healing process begin".
Unless this pastor had definite proof of the alleged activity and had first counseled with Rhonda, he had no right or authority to make such an announcement to the congregation. This should only be done when a person has, indeed, committed sin and is unrepentant after repeated attempts to help. According to the UPCI General Constitution, as shown in their manual, it states: "Where a pastor receives information concerning an act of wrongdoing on the part of a member of the assembly, he shall maintain the confidentiality of such information except as necessary to gain assistance from other ministers of the church. The pastor shall not break such confidentiality unless, given a reasonable basis for believing the information credible, the assembly member does not repent and seek forgiveness." (Article VII, Section 7:33) Yet Pastor Bass felt he had the "right to rebuke" Rhonda and claimed "ecclesiastic immunity" when a lawsuit was filed against him in civil court for slander. (I vividly recall my own former pastor making a church announcement that a prominent male singer and musician in the UPC was gay, having no proof of the matter and later taking those words back.)
After this announcement, a civil suit was filed in the Tulsa County District Court by Rhonda Morrison and Cynthia A. Gass, whom Pastor Bass did not identify by name as the second party involved in the affair. Cynthia was not a member of the church. They were represented by Kay Bridger-Riley. The suit was filed not only against the First United Pentecostal Church and Pastor Bass, but also against the Oklahoma District of the UPCI, and its superintendent, Robert Whalen. They were represented by Roger Williams. The United Pentecostal Church International, Nathaniel Urshan and Cleveland Becton were later withdrawn from the lawsuit by Judge Jane Wiseman, due to lack of evidence against them. They had been represented by Robert Redemann.
Rhonda testified that she had never confessed to an affair and that she was never contacted by Pastor Bass about the church announcement. Both Rhonda and Cynthia have stated that they are just friends and that it is their belief that homosexuality is wrong. Part of the defendant's defense was to claim that it is no longer slander to call someone a homosexual due to the acceptance of homosexuals in today's society. I would like to note here that this appears to be quite a poor defense based on the fact that in Christianity it would most definitely be considered slander and if the UPC did not think it was something wrong, the pastor would never have stated what he did. He definitely did not consider it a favorable attribute.
On December 12, 1997, the 12 member jury believed Rhonda and Cynthia and after approximately two weeks of testimony they voted 9-3 in favor of the plaintiffs. They were each awarded $20,000 for slander, $150,000 for invasion of privacy, and $2.00 for intentional infliction of emotional distress. A number of others who helped spread these allegations had settled out of court before trial. Stephen Martens also settled out of court. Attorney Kay Bridger-Riley was quoted as saying "What Brother Bass did was assume something that he had absolutely no proof of and then tell the world".
Nathaniel Urshan was reported to have said that the verdict sent a shock wave through the UPCI, as indeed it should have. However, he is stated as saying that their ministers were disappointed and "that verdict discounts their responsibility." I disagree. All too often ministers have been allowed to get away with making negative remarks against current and former members. It is high time that a shock wave be sent through the ranks of the ministry so that they will think twice before stating things from the pulpit, or in private, which should not be said. My former pastor was oftentimes quick to act against someone, basing his decision solely on the unsubstantiated report of another member without questioning the accused. It appears in this case that UPC guidelines were not completely followed and it is interesting to note that it may have been the pastor who first brought up the alleged lesbian activity and that it appears there was more concern over the status of a ministerial license than with a person's reputation and spiritual welfare.
Steve Martens no longer holds a ministerial license with the UPCI. A letter to him was returned as the forwarding order had expired. The only attorney which responded to my inquiry was Robert Redemann, who did not wish to comment on the matter as an appeal was possible at the time. Addresses were not found for Rhonda and Cynthia. Inquiries sent to Pastor Bass and Superintendent Whalen went unanswered.
In 1999, a state appeals court upheld the jury's verdict that Pastor Bass used his pulpit to slander these women.
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April 21, 2016 Update: On April 11, 2016 Rhonda Morrison posted on her Facebook profile. (The post was either made private or removed sometime before July 26, 2016.) Speaking of her marriage to Steve Martens, she wrote in part, "The "dark" side of the fairy tale wedding was this; Little did I know that this marriage would only last a little over 7 years. After many heartaches, broken health and several forms of abuse, he finally walked away leaving me traumatized and alone. I went through years of brokenness, depression, oppression and actually began "WILLING" myself to die. My health took me seriously and I began shutting down.
"...You see, in the church demonination/organization in which I was raised (at least up through the 90's) very few women IF ANY were recognized as ministers. The highest "calling" in which a lady could be recognized was by serving as a support for her "Licensed Minister" husband. SO! Once he (my "Licensed Minister" husband) divorced me, and attempted to besmirch my reputation, my entire life as it pertained to ministering in the church was ripped from me as well!
"...As I pondered all day, I wrestled with this post. I decided to celebrate this day which heretofore has haunted me every year with a sense of loss and defeat! SO many wonderful things have transpired during this time
"...I vow TODAY and ALWAYS to celebrate who I am and WHOSE I am!! I choose to look ahead with hope and faith as I declare I am NO LONGER A SLAVE to my broken marriage! I kept my vow TO GOD. I continue to believe that God, in HIS perfect timing will provide a husband and true companionship for me! I will continue to be faithful to Him!"
It appears that Stephen H. Martens works at Southern Bank after having been at Citizens Bank of Batesville in Arkansas.
Pair awarded $340,000 in slander lawsuit against minister- Amarillo Globe-News, December 15, 1997
Minister Claimed Immunity- The Daily Ardmoreite, December 15, 1997
OK Non-Lesbians Win $340,000- NewsPlanet, December 15, 1997
Jury awards 2 women $340,000 in trial over minister's saying they were lesbians- From "The Dallas Morning News," December 15, 1997. You must pay to access this article.
Tulsa Minister, Church Sued for Slander- Tulsa World, December 5, 1997
Pair Awarded $340,000 in Slander Trial // Minister Told Congregation the Two Were Lesbians- Tulsa World, December 13, 1997
Christian Churches Losing a Tradition // Role of Disciplinarian Fading, Experts Say- Tulsa World, December 21, 1997
Tulsa World Online, published these articles: "Tulsa Minister, Church Sued for Slander" (12/5/97), "Pair Awarded $340,00 in Slander Trial" (12/13/97), "Pair Awarded $340,00 in Slander Trial" (12/14/97), "Christian Churches Losing a Tradition" (12/21/97). All were written by Brian Barber, World Staff Writer. On June 8, 1999 they printed an article about the verdict being upheld by a state appeals court. It was written by Dana Sterling.
Posted March 2, 1998 and updated July 25, 2016
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August 23, 1997
Copyright © 1997-2016 by Lois E. Gibson
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