Harvest Bible Chapel sues critics, accusing them of defamation

 
 
Updated 11/28/2018 7:05 AM
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  • Pastor James MacDonald at the Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin.

      Pastor James MacDonald at the Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin. Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

  • Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin.

      Harvest Bible Chapel in Elgin. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, 2015

A suburban megachurch, fed up with criticism from several former members, is suing them, accusing them of defamation.

And it is using the Illinois Deceptive Trade Practices Act to do so.

Harvest Bible Chapel and its founder and senior pastor, James S. MacDonald, filed the suit Oct. 17 in Cook County circuit court.

The suit names Ryan and Melinda Mahoney of Wheaton, Scott and Sarah Bryant of Geneva and Julie Roys of Carol Stream as defendants. Former church members Ryan Mahoney and Scott Bryant run the website The Elephant's Debt, which includes articles about Harvest Bible Chapel.

Melinda Mahoney and Sarah Bryant are named as having provided material support for The Elephant's Debt. Roys is a religion writer, speaker and blogger and was a show host on radio station WMBI, run by Moody Bible Institute.

The Elephant's Debt has been critical of the church's finances and borrowing; changes to the governing structure of the church, including how much authority rests with MacDonald; and the excommunication of three elders, among other topics.

MacDonald founded Harvest Bible in Rolling Meadows in 1988. It has campuses in Elgin, Aurora, Deerfield, Crystal Lake, Highland Park, Niles, Chicago and Naples, Florida, and it has regular attendance of more than 12,000 people weekly, the lawsuit states. It has also helped start about 150 other Harvest Bible Chapels worldwide and owns a camp in Michigan. MacDonald has a daily television show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and a show on WMBI.

In the lawsuit, the church accuses The Elephant's Debt of conducting "an ongoing campaign of harassment" and publishing defamatory statements that paint MacDonald in a false light. The suit says the critics' publication constitutes "commercial disparagement."

"To fund the mission of the Church, Harvest must rely upon donations for the congregation and others, and while Harvest is a nonprofit entity, its 'business' is the promotion of faith and spirituality and Defendants' actions and words threaten Harvest's ability to conduct the business of the church, and threaten its ability to raise the funds necessary to conduct that business," the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says Ryan Mahoney was a former teacher at Harvest Christian Academy who was accused of "influencing" students to share his "cynical view of Harvest and its culture." His contract was not renewed after 2010, the lawsuit states. Scott Bryant was a church member, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit says Roys made false statements about the church and MacDonald in digital and written media.

MacDonald has published an essay in Christianity Today defending the decision to sue. According to a statement on the church website, the elders believe they are responsible for protecting the members of the church from harm.

"We believe governmental authorities, whether criminal or civil, are His (God's) protection when those who oppose us are actually breaking the law," it says, citing the Bible verse Romans 13:1-2.

Roys, the Mahoneys and the Bryants have declined to comment on the advice of their attorneys.

A judge denied a temporary restraining order in late October. The parties are due back in court Thursday.

In August, Harvest Bible Chapel sued the Evangelical Christian Credit Union of California, saying it reneged on a promise to refinance five of the church's mortgages. The church said it had to start paying more interest on its mortgages after the credit union did not refinance.

The suit was filed in Kane County, but the credit union is asking a federal court judge to move the suit to an Orange County, California, court.

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