The moral of both stories? Conservatives of all varieties (political, social, religious) don't much like it when their unsavory deeds are exposed. And conservatives are not shy about using law enforcement in an abusive fashion to achieve their goals, particularly when those goals involve money--as they almost always do.
Thomas A. Rich started a blog to voice his concerns about actions of leaders at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, where Rich was a longtime member. Rich started his blog in August 2007 because of what he calls pastor Mac Brunson's "abusive preaching," especially during fund-raising campaigns.
Rich wrote the blog anonymously, but his words must have struck a nerve. Church officials prompted the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office to conduct a criminal investigation that unearthed Rich's identify. Even though Rich was found to have committed no criminal acts, sheriff's officials told the church about his identity. That prompted the church to issue a trespass warning against Rich and his wife.
The blog in question is called FBC Jax Watchdog, and its criticisms go well beyond Brunson's words from the pulpit. Here is how Florida Times-Union reporter Jeff Brumley characterizes Rich's concerns:
The blog has included criticisms of Brunson’s $300,000 salary, his plan to open a church school, his construction of a “lavish” office suite, accepting a $307,000 land gift from church members for his home and putting his wife on the payroll.In other words, Rich primarily raised questions about Brunson's management of money. And that apparently caused the church to strike back by using law enforcement in a highly questionable way.
Detective Robert Hinson, who opened the probe of the blog, also happens to serve on the minister's security detail. (Since when do ministers have security details?) Rich also wants to know why his name was revealed to the church, even though he was found to have done nothing wrong.
Mark Woods, a columnist for the Florida Times-Union and the son of a minister, said the case raises a number of troubling issues:
It's important to note that the blog never threatened violence. Was it harshly critical? Sarcastic? Unfair? That's a matter of opinion. But it never threatened violence. And the detective closed the investigation, finding no criminal wrongdoing.
He also provided the church, his church, the identity of the blogger.
The church then issued a trespass warning against Thomas A. Rich and his wife.
Most chilling about all of this: Those in power--from the police to the church leaders--not only defend this chain of events, they say it's how things should work.
The Sheriff's Office says there wasn't a conflict of interest and that the detective did the right thing by passing along the blogger's identity to the church.
The State Attorney's Office says there wasn't anything unusual about the subpoena, which made it possible to figure out who was tapping away at a computer keyboard. Happens all the time. Not just with blogs. With e-mails, text messages, etc.
I can identify with what Rich has been through, although there are a number of differences between his case and mine. He blogged anonymously, and I've used my real name from day one. He blogged about suspected wrongdoing in the religious realm, and I blogged about clear-cut criminal activity in the political and "justice" worlds. He was made to feel unwelcome in his church; I was cheated out of my job.
But there a number of similarities, as well. As in Rich's case, a prominent mega-church (Briarwood Christian) has played a curious role in my situation. Both cases involve actions by sheriff's offices that are unethical or downright unlawful. A subpoena to Google played a major role in revealing Rich's identify; such a document should reveal the senders of numerous anonymous threats to my blog, including one that specifically threatened my job about a month before I was fired. Finally, trespassing played a major part in both stories. In my case, it was a difficult neighbor with a criminal record who ignored repeated warnings to stay off our property. In Rich's case, his church has issued a trespassing warning against him, now that they know he is the author of the critical blog.
(By the way, I see no way the church can enforce this trespassing warning against Rich. The church is open to the public for worship services and other events, so under the law, Rich has every right to be there. Under those conditions, he becomes a trespasser only if he is causing a disturbance and refuses to leave when asked.)
Did Rich have reasons to be concerned about the pastor at First Baptist Church? Check out this post from Rich's blog, along with the videos and the comments, and I think you will find some pretty disturbing stuff.
Here's one other thing Rich and I have in common. People who don't like what we have written have tried to portray us as "nuts." The Florida Times-Union reports:
Brunson said Rich’s persistent criticism over nearly two years indicates the writer has an “obsessive compulsive problem” and is “not very stable at all,” Brunson said. “What you’re dealing with is a sociopath."
Rich doesn't seem surprised that the church would attack him in this way:
Rich said his blog gets about 1,000 hits a day and that he regularly hears from people who agree with his criticisms but are afraid to come forward.
“(Brunson's) been trying to convince his administration that I am some kind of a nut,” he said. “I am not a nut … and the things I have raised on the blog are valid concerns.”
Rich is consulting an attorney to determine if his First Amendment and privacy rights have been violated.