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Evangelist’s First Wife Joins Attempt to Gain Church’s Assets

December 3, 1996

DALLAS (AP) _ Evangelist Robert Tilton’s first and second wives both argue that his Faith World Outreach Center Church is really just personal property, and they want a divorce court to break it up and give them shares.

The case raises questions about the constitutional separation of church and state, one religious law expert says.

Marte Tilton, who helped found the ministry, intervened Monday in Tilton’s contentious divorce from fellow evangelist Leigh Valentine Tilton. The filing delayed the start of a jury trial on the divorce from Monday to possibly Wednesday.

Marte Tilton’s court document said the ministry and assets of the church in suburban Farmers Branch ``should be wrested from the talons of Pastor Tilton and Valentine,″ who have ``hideously besmirched″ the Tilton name.

However, Leigh Tilton said she welcomed Marte Tilton’s late entry into the divorce suit because it adds weight to her allegations.

Marte Tilton’s filing contends that the church was community property during Tilton’s first marriage as well as his second, and that she should have gotten part of it.

State District Judge Bill Burdock already had refused to drop the church from Leigh Tilton’s divorce case on the ground that Tilton controls the church and its finances so completely there is no separation.

Tilton, 50, has testified that he runs the church and that it has no board or elders, deacons or finance committee.

Both sides have said they knew of no other case in which a church’s property was contested in its leader’s divorce.

``This is an extraordinary ruling with potentially very dangerous implications for the way churches conduct their business,″ said Lonnie Kliever, chairman of the religion department at Southern Methodist University.

He said the case raises questions about the relationship between church leadership and property ownership.

``It’s a very tangled issue,″ Kliever said after the judge’s earlier action.

J.C. Joyce, an Oklahoma lawyer who represents the church, said there is no evidence that Tilton received anything in his position as senior pastor other than his $275,000 salary. That is the only recompense allowed under the church’s charter, which also forbids the pastor or members of his family from taking possession of any church property, Joyce said.

Tilton’s 25-year marriage to Marte Tilton ended four months before he married Ms. Valentine in February 1994.

That was three years after an ABC ``PrimeTime Live″ report highlighted Tilton’s luxurious lifestyle and questioned whether individual prayer requests were addressed as promised. His libel suit against the network was dismissed.

Several of his one-time followers later filed fraud lawsuits against him. Tilton’s TV ministry, which once combined 200 stations and an international outreach program with a 10,000-member church, shrank at one time to a few hundred members.

The ministry has $30 million assets, including a $1.6 million former parsonage.

Leigh Tilton, a former Missouri beauty queen, has said her marriage to Tilton was ending because he’s losing his soul to alcohol and money.

Attorney Tony Wright, who represents Leigh Tilton, agreed with his client that Marte Tilton could help prove their arguments, but he said she also could cut in ahead of his client’s claims and reduce their value.

Marte Tilton said that any assets awarded to her should go to Lexington Academy, the financially troubled private school that she founded while with Word of Faith and that she now operates independently.

Jim Clutts, who represents Marte Tilton, said she ``has no desire whatsoever to make herself wealthy through this process.″

``Ms. Tilton does not like being personally involved in this,″ he said, ``but she wants the school to wind up in a position where it can continue to educate students.″

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