Jury to be selected in Masonic law case
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A dispute within the state's Masonic community has turned into a bitter, protracted and sometimes-bizarre court case.
Jury selection begins today in Kanawha County Circuit Court for the case, which pits a former leader of the West Virginia Masons against the Masonic Grand Lodge in Charleston and two other former state leaders.
Former state grand master Frank Haas alleges his attempts to reform the Masons were trampled and he was unfairly expelled from the group. He alleges, among other things, that he was defamed, that his privacy was invaded and that he faced emotional distress after he received the "Masonic death sentence."
At the heart of the case is whether or not the dispute belongs in court in the first place.
No doubt that question is now amplified because the case is before Circuit Court Judge Carrie Webster.
She's the Democratic judge who is getting heat for stepping into a dispute following the brawl at a recent South Charleston High football game.
Her decision Tuesday to nullify the suspension of four South Charleston players is now being appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Haas is suing the Masonic Grand Lodge on Hale Street in Charleston and two other former grand masters, Charlie Montgomery and Charles Coleman.
The case was originally filed in 2008, before Webster was a judge.
At the time, then-Judge Irene Berger declined to dismiss it.
Since then, the Masons have urged the court to quickly decide the case in their favor without having a trial, saying Haas' case doesn't belong in court. Webster apparently has not ruled on several of their points. The trial begins next week. Jury selection begins at 10 a.m. today.
"Haas has no cognizable claim under West Virginia law," the defendants said in one of their many court filings.
At stake is how far the state can wade into disputes within private organizations. A lawyer for the Masons cited the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed the Boy Scouts to prohibit homosexuals from being a part of their organization.
"Since there is no state action in the interpretation and application of Masonic Law, the courts of West Virginia should abstain from accepting jurisdiction of a purely private fraternal matter," they said in another court filing.
Haas' lawyers cite other cases where the government has stepped into internal matters, including a Virginia case involving the Masons.
The Haas case is, in and of itself, a curious study in human nature. Over the past two and a half years, court records show that former fraternal brothers have duked it out in a flurry of legal maneuvers.
The Masons have asked Webster to prohibit discussion of some rituals in open court and tried to prevent the plaintiff's lawyers from comparing elements of the case to the Nazis' treatment of Masons.
Concerns also have been expressed that Masons might try to retaliate against witnesses in the case. Webster recently cautioned Masonic leaders not to do so.
Well known Charleston attorneys represent both sides.
The Masons have hired John Tinney and James Tinney.
Haas is represented by Bob Allen, a partner in the Charleston law firm Allen Guthrie & Thomas. Allen is a former assistant U.S. attorney and a longtime member of the Masons himself.
Haas, an administrative law judge who lives in Wellsburg, had been a Mason for 21 years before he was expelled in 2007. His father is a Mason at the same lodge in Wellsburg, and Haas' great-grandfather had been a member of a Masonic lodge in Scotland.
In 2006, Haas introduced a series of reforms that he said would have "rid Masonry in West Virginia" of "Orwellian, repressive, regressive and unconstitutional practices."
He wanted to eliminate "any lingering issue about racism," eliminate discrimination of the handicapped, make it easier for young men to participate in the Masonic community and encourage freer speech.
He said Coleman and Montgomery, among others, resisted these changes.
When the issue was put to a vote in October 2006, Haas' agenda apparently passed. But then a dispute erupted over whether the vote was taken correctly.
Coleman, who took over as grand master after Haas, then voided the reforms.
In filings, the Masons' defense attorneys said there were "irregularities," and Coleman had a duty to overturn the results.
They said Haas and another Mason began a website called "Masonic Crusade" that "grossly mischaracterized Coleman's actions." Montgomery, who succeeded Coleman as grand master in 2007, believed the ongoing campaign was harming the organization.
Haas told Montgomery he had nothing to do with the campaign. Montgomery believed he had been lied to and confronted Haas with evidence of his involvement. At that point, Haas said he would always support the Masonic Crusade, according to the defendants' account.
Montgomery then expelled Haas for campaigning and promoting false information, according to his lawyers.
Haas' lawyers recall the same meeting in a different light. They accuse Montgomery of "rantings and outlandish attack" and making "trumped up allegations."
"It was an underhanded blindsided ambush and this outrageous conduct is the primary focus of this entire case," Haas' lawyers said in a filing.
They said Montgomery "in front of Mr. Haas's friends and family, lectured and berated Mr. Haas with unfounded allegations."
To sort this all out, Haas' lawyers have assembled at least two dozen witnesses, many of whom have already given depositions. It's not clear yet how many the Masons plan to call.
Amid all this, there have been some unique legal filings.
One witness, Robert Sowa, a Mason at the Strange Creek Lodge in Braxton County, filed a motion in late October seeking a court order to prevent other Masons from punishing him for answering a subpoena.
Sowa, a family court judge in central West Virginia, said he had been told that other witnesses had moved to other Masonic jurisdictions "in an apparent attempt to insulate themselves from repercussions from Defendant-Grand Lodge." The Grand Lodge is essentially the top governing body for state Masons.
Sowa's filing said, "That if Mr. Sowa would be required to testify, he would be subjected to 'undue burden' in that the (Charleston Grand Lodge) may now or in the future expel him or take adverse action against him if (it) believes Mr. Sowa violated his Masonic obligations while responding to the subpoena."
Webster granted Sowa a protective order and said Masons in the state are "enjoined and restrained from taking any punitive measures against Mr. Sowa as a result of his giving a deposition."
At another point, the Masons filed a motion to prevent "Unpublished Masonic Rituals" from being introduced into evidence or talked about during trial. These are supposedly secret customs used by the Masons.
The Masons said Haas' lawyer planned to introduce these items into the public record "for the sole purpose of harassing defendants."
In a July 22, 2009 deposition, one of the defense lawyers stopped the recording to interrupt Allen's questions about these rituals, according to court records.
When the record begins again, Allen said, "We have had a rather extended break and some discussions with regard to (...) putting certain matters with regard to the Masonic Law, the Masons, on the record. And, following this discussion, I have agreed at this stage to back off some areas of inquiry I had originally intended to get into."
In another motion, the Masons tried to prevent Allen from trying to compare elements of the current case to the oppression of Masons by Hitler.
During a disposition with Montgomery, Allen brings up historical analogies and asks him about secret meetings.
"Why did they meet in secret?" Allen asked.
Montgomery replied, "Because of Hitler."
A bit later in the exchange, Allen said, "So you go underground, you start doing things secretly, right?"
"Right, right," Montgomery replied.
"Same thing happening in West Virginia right now, isn't it?" Allen asked.
In a later court filing, Allen said he does not plan to bring up the Nazis or Hitler during the trial, which begins next week. But he said he cannot control answers of witnesses.
Contact writer Ry Rivard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1796.