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Trinity Wall Street, the venerable Episcopal church that has anchored lower Manhattan since 1697, has been roiled by internal turmoil for a while, and the hits just keep coming.
As we wrote in our December cover story, Trinity’s congregation has been rocked by tumultuous disagreements over the church’s controversial rector, James Cooper. A year and a half ago, some members of Trinity’s vestry — a vestry is something like a board of directors — sought to persuade Cooper to leave. Instead, Cooper stayed, and managed to force out all the vestry members who didn’t support him, using his control over the vestry-selection process. Now that control is the subject of a lawsuit.
The suit, filed Monday by Jeremy Bates, who has attended Trinity since 2004, alleges that the mechanism Cooper used to stack the vestry with his supporters is actually contrary to the church’s own charter.
While the charter gives members of Trinity’s congregation the right to elect the two church wardens and 20 vestry members, Bates alleges that process has been perverted into a meaningless rubber stamp.
How so? Well, for starters, the nomination committee — which consists of Cooper, two vestry members appointed by Cooper, and two members of the congregation approved by Cooper — only nominated 22 candidates for the 22 positions. If that weren’t enough to delegitimize an election, the ballots with which congregants voted for their leaders only had a single box to check: “Yes.”
Bates says in the last election, he responded to this by writing in his own “no” votes for all the nominees, and he knows others who voted “no” as well. The slate of candidates was installed anyway, and when he asked Cooper whether the “no” votes had been counted and whether the candidates had even received a majority of “yes” votes, he got the runaround, according to the complaint.
“The 2012 election wasn’t a real election, in my opinion,” Bates told the Voice yesterday. “There were 22 candidates for 22 slots and the church ignored votes against those candidates. An election along those lines strikes me as an empty exercise and an insult to the voters.
Bates told the Voice that he brought the suit now because he feared the coming April election was likely to be the same sham the previous one was.
“I recently realized that the church was bound and determined to conduct this upcoming election in the same way it had conducted the 2012 election,” he said. “I want a real choice for Trinity’s parishioners. I think people are upset enough with the vestry that they want to be able to vote against it. And I aim to give them that choice.”
Along with the voting issue, Bates’s lawsuit also calls for Trinity to turn over its financial statements, which under current church policy are secret to all but the rector and the vestry.
“Trinity Wall street has a culture of secrecy which helps create a lack of accountability,” Bates said yesterday. “I think it is healthier for nonprofit organizations to disclose their finances publicly, and I believe the law expects this.”
Here’s the full complaint: