Judge rules Eau Claire church congregation to hand over keys, removing membership

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EAU CLAIRE, Wisc. (WEAU) - A judge ruled a majority of the Grace Lutheran church in Eau Claire are now non-voting members, forcing them to hand over their keys to the building.

“It's very sad whenever a church is fragmented in this manner. Sixty-seven people, a clear minority, to determine that 1,700 people are not members of the church, is absolutely unheard of,” David Irgens at Grace Lutheran Church said.

He said the separation started when the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America changed its beliefs in 2009.

“What it really comes down to is we cannot worship as we used to worship,” Irgens said.

Irgens said a change to view Jesus Christ as a symbol and not a savior divided those whose beliefs remained the same, and those who didn't want to leave the E.L.C.A..

He said a 57 percent majority voted to leave the E.L.C.A., but it needed two-thirds to no longer be affiliated.

Tuesday, a judge ruled that members who don't affiliate themselves with the E.L.C.A. cannot be full voting members at Grace Lutheran.

The 67 members who formed a group called amazing grace, are now the only full-fledged members who can have leadership positions.

Grace Lutheran members initially rejected the court order to give up their keys by 5:00 p.m. Tuesday, but changed their minds and handed them over this morning.

“It’s been 15 months, we think we have some pretty good issues at appeal. We gave those keys away, down the road we hope to get them back,” Grace Lutheran’s attorney, Jay Heit said.

Wednesday, members moved personal items out of the building, with the church's future undecided.

“We will continue to worship Christ, and we'll continue to gather and we will continue to come together as a family, because that's what we've become.

Amazing Grace members declined to comment, but the E.L.C.A.'s lawyer, Thomas Guelzow said he was glad to see this conclusion, and hoped all parties could move on.

Pete Hestekin's kids are the fourth generation of his family at Grace Lutheran.He said with or without the building, the congregation will stay together.

“I hope that this place survives in some form or another, but I’m willing to move away from it, as I’ve moved from other houses. We can move forward,” Hestekin said.

Members said they're considering other places to worship.

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