A jury awarded $1.35 million yesterday to a woman who said she was driven from her job as music director at a Lutheran church in Gaithersburg and pushed nearly to the brink of suicide by a pastor whose alleged sexual advances she had rebuffed.
Mary Linklater alleged that she was ostracized from Prince of Peace Lutheran Church because of a campaign of retaliatory harassment by its pastor at the time, the Rev. Rufus S. Lusk III, and his allies. Linklater, 46, contended in a lawsuit that after she complained about Lusk's conduct, he delivered a series of sermons intended to discredit her by focusing on such topics as the sinful nature of bearing false witness.
The jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court awarded $1 million in punitive damages and $300,000 in compensatory damages against Lusk, finding that Linklater was the victim of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The jury, which deliberated for two days, awarded $50,000 in compensatory damages against the church.
Attorneys on both sides said they were surprised by the size of the award. Linklater, a Germantown resident who now gives private music lessons, said she, too, was stunned.
"It just seemed like the church all along has been excused for so many things that I was really worried that once again, it would not be held accountable," Linklater said. "People are so unwilling to believe that someone in a church could do anything wrong."
A telephone message left for Lusk at the Columbia church where he is now pastor was not returned yesterday afternoon. He denied the allegations during the trial and contended that his criticism of Linklater was an appropriate critique of a subordinate employee, the attorneys who represented him and the church said.
The attorneys said they will ask Judge Durke G. Thompson to overturn the verdict and will appeal if necessary. "We think this award's going to vaporize," said Mindy Farber, one of the attorneys.
According to her lawsuit, Linklater joined the church in 1996 as a part-time employee. She received stellar performance evaluations and, in 1999, was made a full-time employee, the lawsuit says. Although not originally Lutheran, she adopted the faith, became a congregant of the church and regularly attended services.
The church lost its pastor in 1999, and Lusk was appointed interim pastor that October.
Soon, the lawsuit alleges, he began complimenting Linklater's appearance, trying to hold her hand and calling her at home at inappropriate hours.
After she rebuffed his advances, the lawsuit claims, Lusk tried to discredit her. He described her to others as "an unexploded bomb," the suit says.
Linklater quit her job March 7, 2001, telling choir members and others that she would not enter the church again. "It has become a building full of hate and anger," she wrote in an e-mail.
"I not only lost my job, but I lost that whole spiritual community that is usually what sustains people when they have something terrible happen," Linklater said yesterday.
Farber and Jim Rubin, who is co-counsel representing Lusk and the church, said yesterday that the case should never have come before a jury. Courts have generally not interfered with churches in the management of employees such as pastors and music directors, they said.
"The First Amendment gives a church absolute authority to choose its ministerial employees," Rubin said.
But Linklater's attorneys, Roland G. Schroeder and Warren Kaplan, said courts are moving toward recognizing that churches are as capable of egregious conduct as other employers.
"I think an appellate court would be very hard-pressed to say a church could engage in intentional infliction of emotional distress and say that that's protected behavior," Schroeder said.