24 Oct 2010

Secretive worldwide sect battles Vermonter in court

The Burlington Free Press - April 5, 2009

By Sam Hemingway • Free Press Staff Writer

Timothy Twinam of Williston says he just wants to tell the truth about what's really going on inside the Exclusive Brethren, a well-heeled, reclusive evangelical Christian group with 43,000 members around the world.

"This is a very closed group," said Twinam, 54, a native of Great Britain. "They don't circulate much with people, and over the years they've become ever more exclusive and cultish."

The Exclusive Brethren says Twinam is a malcontent, a former church member who stole confidential documents to display them on www.Peebs.net, a Web site Twinam admits he created to encourage people to abandon the organization.

"The guy is a master of misdirection," said Matthew Kirtland, a Washington, D.C., lawyer for the Bible & Gospel Trust, a charity run by the Exclusive Brethren. "As a lawyer, he's tough to stomach. He has engaged in such bad conduct it's distasteful."

The deepening feud, involving constitutional free speech and copyright issues, is the basis of an unusual lawsuit in federal court and was the subject of a hearing Friday before Judge J. Garvan Murtha in Brattleboro.

The litigation also marks the first time a court will be employing Vermont's SLAPP law, passed in 2006 and designed to prevent an entity from using the threat of a lawsuit to silence its critics. SLAPP is an acronym for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation.

The Exclusive Brethren wants Murtha to make Twinam stop publishing the group's copyrighted material and pay damages for the trouble he's caused, according to papers filed with the court.

"He has admitted that from the inception of this litigation, he made misrepresentations to the court (or 'ruses' as he said during his deposition) as part of a tactic to try to get rid of the lawsuit," the Exclusive Brethren's charity claims in court papers.

Twinam contends he has done nothing wrong. He said the Exclusive Brethren is trying to muzzle criticism of its practices. He said the "proprietary materials" at issue, including a poem written by his father, were documents he obtained from public sources.

"Given the importance of secrecy to the Exclusive Brethren and their willingness to litigate to further that interest, I take great care to operate Peebs.net in accordance with the law," Twinam said in an affidavit on file at the court. Mystery of 'Brethren'

By all accounts, the Exclusive Brethren is a very closed society.

The group, which broke away from the evangelical Plymouth Brethren of Great Britain in 1848, requires its members to live, work and socialize separately from nonmembers.

Efforts to interview a representative of the Exclusive Brethren last week were unsuccessful but, according to the group's official Web site, it has members in many English-speaking countries, particularly in Australia and New Zealand.

Under the group's teachings, members are not allowed to marry people from outside the group. Only men can work outside the home and only in businesses controlled by the Exclusive Brethren. Women, once married, are responsible for birthing and raising children.

The Exclusive Brethren also prohibit members from having televisions, radios or access to the Internet in their homes or watch any movies. The group runs its own education system and teaches youths that homosexuality is wrong.

Members can only eat meals with other members, cannot go to restaurants -- except in emergencies -- and must stay with other members' families when they are traveling away from home, according to the Web site.

Twinam said the group's rules also include isolating those who have fallen out of favor with the Exclusive Brethren and banning them from having further contact with members in good standing, even their spouses and children.

That's what happened when Twinam's father raised questions about the leadership of the group in 1970 and found himself "withdrawn from" the Exclusive Brethren shortly afterward.

"My dad was one of the most Christian people I've ever known," Twinam said. "They insisted he had insulted a man of God."

Twinam, 16 at the time and living in Great Britain, said he left the group when his father did and drifted about the world for years afterward, becoming what he described as a "floppy Christian."

"I didn't want to belong to anything," he said.

He steered clear of the Exclusive Brethren until the late 1990s when he began following a Web site run by a critic of the group. When the Exclusive Brethren succeeded in getting that Web site shut down, Twinam decided to create another one to take its place.

"I just felt if I don't do this, it's not going to happen," he said.

Contentious case

Kirtland, the lawyer representing the Exclusive Brethren's charity in the lawsuit, said his client is only concerned about protecting its copyrighted and proprietary materials. He said the insertion of SLAPP in the case is a diversionary move by Twinam's lawyers.

"His whole story is a complete shell game," Kirtland said. "It's all based on mischief and lies." He said the materials that Twinam had allegedly taken from the group amounted to speeches and essays authored by Exclusive Brethren leaders.

Ron Shems of Burlington, Twinam's lawyer, said the case is important particularly because it will test the effectiveness of SLAPP law. The state Attorney General's Office has filed a brief in support of the law's application in the case.

"They're using a big international law firm to try to shut down someone who dares to speak out against them," Shems said, referring to the Exclusive Brethren. "And this isn't the first time they've tried to shut down a Web site like this."

Kirtland is a partner in the law firm of Fullbright & Jaworski, which has offices in China, Europe, the Middle East and Washington, D.C. The late Leon Jaworski, a founding member of the firm, was a special prosecutor in the Watergate scandal.

Kirtland said the Exclusive Brethren should not be blamed for aggressively defending their copyrighted materials.

"The Brethren would just like to protect their legal rights," Kirtland said. "In the absence of doing that, there would be willy-nilly violations of copyright laws."

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