Related topics

Religion Today

August 13, 1998

MERRIMACK, N.H. (AP) _ For the Rev. Paul Norwalt, law comes from the Bible, not the Legislature. This is evident even outside his church.

Posted at every entrance to his Merrimack Baptist Temple are these words: ``You have entered property which is an embassy of the Kingdom of the Lord. Be advised and noticed that you are now subject to the law of the kingdom and jurisdiction of the word of God.″

For years Norwalt has tested the line between church and state, most recently by running an unregistered school at the church. Now he is on a collision course with authorities over where that line is drawn.

In May, Norwalt was ordered to get state approval for his school or close it. He has done neither. Though school is in summer recess, a judge last week found Norwalt in contempt of court for defying the order.

If students return to the pastor’s church for the start of the school year in September, Norwalt could be fined and sent to jail.

Though Norwalt, 53, is an outspoken advocate for the religious right in this town of 23,000, he doesn’t seek publicity.

His followers won’t open the church door for strangers, despite signs that welcome ``Christian fellowship.″ Neither Norwalt nor his church accepts mail. As a result, neighbors are concerned that something more than Christian values motivates the group.

``It is a masquerade, and I’m scared to death what’s going to happen when that mask finally comes down,″ said Chuck Mower, a former school board member who often clashed with Norwalt.

The concern is recent. Norwalt incorporated the church in 1984 as a religious, not-for-profit organization. It operated quietly for more than a decade; the pastor even served 2 1/2 years as chaplain of the fire department.

But in January 1995, he petitioned the school board to bolster the curriculum with creationism, the belief that God created all life and matter. He withdrew the petition after weeks of heated debate.

His anti-government sentiments surfaced shortly after. In March 1995 he dissolved his church’s corporation, severing its ties to the state. By September, he apparently had decided it was easier to create his own school than to battle the town over public schools.

Those schools are immoral and part of a ``godless system,″ Norwalt said during a recent interview. ``We being moral and godly children, we can’t let our children be a part of that, to be trained by the godless.″

Like his church, little is known about Norwalt’s school. It offers, he said, a self-paced curriculum of character development, memorization of Bible verses and creationism.

The lessons are not just for children. ``All of the adults in the church go to school here,″ Norwalt said. ``We don’t teach from 6 to 16. We teach everybody.″

At times, four children could be seen through a window of a large classroom, studying. If visitors ventured too near, a woman, presumably the teacher, closed the shades.

From the start, the school created problems for the pastor. He refused to register it with the state. ``The church ... has the authority from our Lord and savior Jesus Christ to do what he told us to do, which is to train up our children in the nature and admiration of the Lord,″ Norwalt said. ``That can’t be done in any other system within our reach.″

State and town education officials asked Norwalt to complete an eight-page application to get his school approved. They tried to negotiate. He refused. ``The state can’t tell us to do something God already has,″ Norwalt said.

State officials warn that the children could be found truant for the time spent at Norwalt’s school, and their parents could face fines of $1,000.

Citing concerns for the children’s safety, a judge in May ordered Norwalt to close the school. The pastor failed to attend the hearing, refusing to acknowledge the court’s authority. ``This church has never been in the system, the corrupt school structure,″ he has insisted, pledging, ``We never will be a part of it.″

In the past, Norwalt has claimed that the state is targeting him because his moral instruction threatens public education. He also questioned whether such instruction even constitutes a school, noting that he teaches students of all ages. His problems extended beyond the church. He was evicted from his home for refusing to pay the education portion of his property taxes. In fighting the May eviction, Norwalt filed legal briefs similar to some used by radical constitutionalists and militia groups, though he denies working with them.

Littered with ungrammatical Latin and references to God’s law, Norwalt’s briefs call judges ``alien enemy agents″ of an illegal government with no authority over a man of God.

Counting 20 cars recently, neighbor Mower noted an alarming increase in Sunday attendance. ``This represents now not just the idle rhetorical ramblings of Paul Norwalt,″ he said, ``but of the united disposition of his congregation.″

Update hourly