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Judge blocks pastor from handling church funds at Jericho

By Avis Thomas-Lester,

A Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge granted a temporary restraining order Friday forbidding the Rev. Joel R. Peebles, the pastor at the center of a battle for control over the multi-million-dollar Jericho City of Praise in Landover, from collecting tithes and offerings during church services.

The court order is the first legal action in a court battle that began in October, just days after the death of Peebles’s mother, Apostle Betty Peebles, who co-founded the church and grew it into one of the region’s largest and most influential ministries, with more than 15,000 members and millions in assets.

A group of church employees who claim that in the months before her death Betty Peebles gave them authority to manage the church’s finances had petitioned the court for the restraining order to block Joel Peebles, 41, from handling the money. Joel Peebles, who has been acting as senior pastor of the church since his mother’s death, has countersued, challenging the employees’ authority and the way they have managed the church’s money.

In a two-hour hearing, Judge Dwight Jackson also approved a motion to establish a mediator to help negotiate a resolution and ordered the employees to provide the church’s financial records, which attorneys for Joel Peebles requested five months ago.

“You can’t have drama like that” in church at offering time, Jackson said, admonishing the participants.

The order will be good for 10 days in the interest of “peace and order and maintaining the status quo,” he said.

Afterward, both sides claimed victory.

“I feel like this is a tremendous victory,” said Joel Peebles, the only surviving child of the ministry’s founders. “We have been able to gain transparency in all things. We were negotiating for exactly what was produced in this hearing.”

Isaac Marks, the attorney for the employees, countered that they had been successful in preventing Joel Peebles from collecting money. A church official testified that Jericho collected upwards of $300,000 a month for the first several months of the year.

“They are happy there will not be drama in the church,” Marks said. “They didn’t like drama and don’t want drama. They want the church services to run as they should.”

Jackson’s order follows a dust-up over the offering at the 11 a.m. service two weeks ago, when the church’s security team stepped in when Joel Peebles’s 28-year-old nephew, Joshua, who has sided with the employees, tried to grab an offering basket. As dozens of church members watched in disbelief, Joshua Peebles, the son of Joel Peebles’s late brother, James Peebles Jr., was hauled out of the sanctuary by the security officers.

During Friday’s hearing, Marks showed scenes from a DVD of two church services July 3 that allegedly showed members being “intimidated” by offering collectors for Joel Peebles as they attempted to place their envelopes in the white buckets.

In his lawsuit, Peebles is seeking to have the employee group stripped of any power over the church, claiming that it seized control after his mother’s death without appropriate authority, is not qualified to run the business side of the church and is secretive in the way it spends the church’s money.

The attorneys for both sides met with Jackson in chambers after the hearing. They agreed on retired Circuit Court judge Stephen Platt as the mediator. Marks agreed to submit the financial documents that Joel Peebles requested by July 22, and Jackson set a hearing for Aug. 2, when he is likely to tackle the issue of which group has the legal right to control the church’s finances.

Jackson refused a request by the employees to order Joel Peebles to return $70,000 in offering he collected in recent weeks. During the hearing, Peebles testified that he has deposited the money in an account at PNC Bank and uses it for church-related expenses.

He has pledged that none of the money he collected will be used for legal fees.

After the hearing, Peebles’s attorney, Timothy Maloney, said that he was pleased by the result of the hearing. “Pastor believes the business of the church should be taken out of the courts and put back into the sanctuary,” Maloney said.

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