Thou Shalt Not Sue

In the world of religious radio, WAFG-FM (90.3) is the voice of mighty Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a "friend of the family," the station proclaims, existing "to glorify God and to further His purposes."

"Isn't it wonderful to live in a country where Christians are freely allowed to worship, speak our minds...," station manager Dolores King tells listeners in the program guide, which lists such inspirational shows as "Genesis Connection," "Truths That Transform," and the more secular "How to Manage Your Money."

Until last month WAFG also aired a Thursday-evening, call-in program, "Women of God," hosted by Melanie Lashbrook, daughter of one of the founders of the Presbyterian Church in America and one-time Coral Ridge staff member, who promised the station she would not speak her mind.

Specifically, Lashbrook agreed not to discuss another WAFG talk-show host, lawyer Perry W. Hodges, Jr., who's active on the religious right of Broward County Republican politics and counsels listeners with his Wednesday-evening hour, "Know Your Legal Rights."

Among the rights on which Hodges is expert is the right of a lawyer to sue to collect unpaid fees. For more than three years, he and Lashbrook's husband Larry have been locked in bitter combat, firing away with both law and Scripture, over the more than $24,000 owed Hodges by Larry in the aftermath of Larry's divorce from his first wife, whom Hodges represented and now employs. The assistance to his ex-wife "bugs the snot out of Larry," Hodges says with some glee. "I became Satan personified in his mind."

Last month the Lashbrook-Hodges feud drew blood inside WAFG. Station management, whether furthering His purposes or favoring Hodges, killed Melanie Lashbrook's "Women of God."

According to Lashbrook, station manager King told her that influential friends of Hodges in the church wanted Lashbrook removed, and "I can't take the pressure any more. I can't protect you from being taken off." Lashbrook also remembers being told to accept the decision, that "I should be more of a Christian and turn the other cheek. But Christians do not sue other Christians. Why not take Perry Hodges off too? If Larry really owes him the money, shouldn't it go back to Perry Hodges to turn the other cheek. That's how I feel: It's a double standard."

King would not discuss the Lashbrook issue. Hodges, while adamantly denying he had anything to do with the decision to silence Melanie, added, "There is a large contingent that goes to Coral Ridge [Presbyterian Church] that believes in doing things the right way. Larry has not done anything the right way."

For Hodges, a member of the Sheridan Hills Baptist Church in Hollywood, the path to rightness led to the Broward County Courthouse, where on December 10, a week after WAFG banished Melanie Lashbrook, Hodges foreclosed on the Lashbrook house. The Lashbrooks retaliated with a media fax attack, headlined, "CHRISTIAN ATTORNEY PETITIONS COURT TO TAKE HOME AWAY FROM FAMILY RIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS!!"

The house, appraised at about $70,000, is tucked away among auto dealer back lots on NE Second Avenue just south of Sunrise Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. It includes a rear shop for Larry Lashbrook's guitar-repair business. The house is scheduled to be auctioned at the courthouse February 3 to pay Hodges' legal fees.

As that date approaches, the Lashbrooks and the lawyer play dueling Bibles.
"Biblically, a Christian should not take another Christian to court," but instead should submit to church authorities to settle secular disputes, Lashbrook argued. She paced in their living room on New Year's Eve, in front of a Christmas tree and under a sign asking God to bless their home, as Larry reached for his Bible to find a supportive passage in I Corinthians. It begins: "Dare any of you having a matter against another, go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world?"

In response Hodges emphasized that he tried for years to abide by I Corinthians. He also suggested that if patience is a virtue it has a statute of limitations, which has run out in the Lashbrook case. "He wants me to do the 'Christian' thing and just walk away and forget the whole thing. I'm not willing to do that, not at this point."

Hodges also drew support from the Bible, noting, "There's a proverb that says the borrower becomes a slave to the lender."

Aligned with the conservative Christian faction of Broward's Republican party, Hodges has run unsuccessfully for party chairman, school board, and state legislature but has been a winner on WAFG for ten years.

On "Know Your Legal Rights," which airs Wednesdays from 9 to 10 p.m., he dispenses general legal advice in response to caller questions on such issues as wills and debt restructuring, advising one caller last week to prioritize his bill payments. "A lot of people who get in financial difficulty, it's really easy to let your house go," Hodges observed. "If you don't pay your mortgage payment, you're living under a bridge."  

Whatever the lawyer's star status, Melanie Lashbrook argues that WAFG, housed in the tower of Coral Ridge Presbyterian, should not have sacrificed "Women of God" for station harmony with Hodges. After all, she is not exactly a bit player among Presbyterians.

With more than 9000 members and the international media ministry of its pastor, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, Coral Ridge Presbyterian is a showcase church in the conservative Presbyterian Church in America. Melanie's father was one of the founding members of that denomination and her minister brother is editor of a national PCA newspaper.

"We are well rooted in that denomination," Lashbrook said. "We're very much involved in Christian conservative circles."

Besides, when it came to Hodges, Lashbrook had already promised to keep her mouth shut. In September 1996, as she talked with WAFG about hosting a show "dealing with issues Christian women face today," one issue station management insisted she face was taking a vow of silence toward Hodges. She agreed, stating in a memo, "I was under submission to the church and would in no way use WAFG to air disputes between my husband and Perry Hodges...."

With that promise WAFG welcomed "Women of God," first from 9 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays, then moving it to the same time slot on Thursdays. The hour featured interviews with such major religious figures as Shirley Dobson, who hosts a national radio program, "Focus on the Family," as well as local Christian women testifying about their ministries and what God has done for them.

Lashbrook hosted the show for more than a year and says she kept her word, never mentioning Perry Hodges. "I'm a professional. I would never do that, and I never did."

At least not on WAFG. Melanie and Larry Lashbrook, however, are something of a talk radio juggernaut, hosting a one-hour evening show called "On the Move," Mondays through Fridays on WNN-AM (1470) with simulcasts three nights a week on WSBR-AM (740).

Although Melanie's guests range from religious conservatives to a psychologist discussing the Christian approach to weight management (eat less, exercise more, reflect on the Scriptures), she boasts, "We uncover a lot of corruption that's going on, mostly in the legal system." Coincidentally, their guests last week included a Palm Beach County couple fighting a seven-year battle against foreclosure on their house. The couple went to trial the week before Christmas, leading Larry to interject that Perry Hodges had done the same thing to him, "and the guy claims to be a Christian."

At the end of the hour, Larry asked listeners, "Pray for us.... We're going into court in Fort Lauderdale. We've got them dead to rights on the law."

The legal dispute centers on a mortgage Hodges took on Lashbrook's house in 1990. After the divorce from his first wife, Lashbrook was under court order to pay her legal fees, about $17,600. He agreed to pay Hodges in installments, with interest, with the lawyer holding the mortgage as security. Lashbrook claims he made payments totaling $14,800; Hodges says most of that was for the monthly interest on the money owed, not payment of the fee bill itself. Lashbrook stopped making payments in 1994.

The following year Melanie and Larry, both divorced, both members of Coral Ridge Presbyterian, were introduced and began dating. They were married in 1995 in a historic church in Savannah and that October were given a wedding reception at Coral Ridge Presbyterian.

Larry received a less-than-warm reception from the Coral Ridge Presbyterian ethics committee, which acts as a sort of church court in disputes involving members. In July 1995 Hodges, though a Baptist, asked the committee to resolve the fee dispute with Lashbrook, "in the interest of peace and unity within the Christian community."

When Lashbrook sought ground rules for the ethics hearing -- permission to tape-record, witnesses, right of appeal -- the committee, arguing Lashbrook was refusing to submit to its authority, refused to arbitrate the dispute.

Hodges filed suit to foreclose in January 1996 and won a $24,255 judgment in January 1997. Settlement negotiations fell apart, the Lashbrooks lost their appeal of the judgment, and Hodges returned to court last month, winning a final foreclosure date of February 3.

"There were numerous situations where I said to Larry, 'This needs to be resolved within the confines of the Christian community,'" Hodges said. "He never did. Mr. Lashbrook wants to hide behind his Christianity to make Perry Hodges out to be the bad guy in this situation but does not want to be bound by anything that the Christian community or the Bible says. That's the Christian perspective."  

At WAFG, meanwhile, station ads for "Know Your Legal Rights" began airing where they had not aired before: during the hour once occupied by "Women of God." Melanie Lashbrook received those words with something less than reverence.

"The first night I was off, there were promos put on for Perry Hodges," she fumed. "He had never ever run there. That was a real slap in the face.

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