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Schiavo judge, church part ways

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS, Times Staff Writer
Published March 31, 2005


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Schiavo judge, church part ways

What happens when faith in God collides with commitment to the job?

In the case of Judge George Greer, a Christian who ordered the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube, the answer is difficult.

Two weeks ago, Greer's pastor asked him to reconsider his membership at Calvary Baptist Church, one of Clearwater's largest and best known Southern Baptist congregations.

Greer severed ties with the theologically conservative congregation within days of the request.

Calvary says it did not technically ask Greer to leave. But to some, its actions may have left the impression that the judge was forced out of the very place where disagreements are supposed to be quashed.

The truth, Calvary says, is that Greer was the first one to walk away and hadn't regularly attended church in several years.

The membership question was merely an attempt to make it official.

"The Schiavo case brought it to the forefront," said the church's pastor, the Rev. William Rice, who posed the question to Greer in a two-page letter. "Our purpose was simply to clarify his membership. ... He'd made public remarks critical to this church. That was his decision."

Long before Rice became Calvary's pastor, Greer had problems with members of the Southern Baptist denomination. The Florida Baptist Witness, published by the Florida Southern Baptist Convention, had written editorials criticizing Greer's actions on Schiavo. Greer later complained that Calvary did not support him during that time, Rice said.

Though Greer had other, unrelated problems with Calvary, he said the editorials led him to stop donating money to the church.

Greer declined to discuss the matter for this story but has previously defended his actions by saying: "If I don't like what the St. Pete Times writes about me, my only recourse is to cancel my subscription."

This prompted Rice to write the March 10 letter to Greer saying, in part:

"If you have chosen to leave Calvary, distance yourself from her and criticize her publicly, then why have you not formally transferred your membership elsewhere? ... I am not asking you to do this, but since you have taken the initiative of withdrawal, and since your connection with Calvary continues to be a point of concern, it would seem the logical and, I would say, biblical course."

The letter, which became public record after Rice mailed it to Greer's work address, also restated Rice's position on supporting human life.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who said he allows his beliefs to guide his morals, said he understands the issue firsthand as a member of Calvary and a friend of Greer's.

"I think Greer is in a very difficult position in serving the public," Hibbard said.

Bible scholars are split on whether the church's move reflects biblical principles, which often differ based upon the interpretation of denominations. Of these 30,000 or so denominations of Christianity, the groups range in theology from the conservative Southern Baptists to the liberal Unitarian Universalists.

"All authority comes from God and authority either blesses or curses," said George Siemer, with the nondenominational Faith Theological Seminary and Christian College in Tampa. "The possibility exists that the church is looking at the judge's decision to pull the tube not as a blessing but as a curse."

After hearing about the split between the judge and his church, Clearwater's Faith United Church of Christ invited Greer to join.

"He must be so sick of Christians and churches," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Anton DeWet. "We've made idols out of scripture and we've made it such a final truth. ... The moment anyone claims to have the final truth, run for your life."

The Rev. Leroy Campbell, pastor of Mount Olive Missionary Baptist Church in Clearwater, said he won't "turn people out" of his congregation.

"If a member goes against what God says, then they have to deal with the Lord, not me," said Campbell. "Most people say what Christians are supposed to do, but some of them are not Christians."

Parishioners at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Clearwater heard Greer speak about the Schiavo matter last fall.

"We certainly urge people to find a way to live life that is reflective of their scriptural values and commitments," said Rev. Abhi Janamanchi. "But we don't make it a litmus test for their belonging to our community."

Haste may have hurt better judgment on both sides of the divide, said Carl Martin, an associate professor of Biblical Studies at Clearwater Christian College, which is not affiliated with any denomination. "In the heat of the moment, the judgment on either side is premature," Martin said. "The church certainly has been forced into acting immediately. The judge was forced into acting immediately."

Rice, the Calvary Baptist pastor, said he wishes he had never sent that letter to Greer's work address. He said he worries people might think Calvary scoffs at independent thinkers.

"We have managed to hack off everybody," said Rice, who said Greer is - and has always been - welcome at church. "Our hearts are broken like everybody else's. I don't know if anybody comes out winning in this whole thing. It's been a tragedy."

[Last modified March 31, 2005, 01:29:09]

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