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Religion-politics fight flares over Bible study groups

Pastor Ralph Drollinger should be flying high these days. Known for over a decade of leading Bible study classes for legislators in Sacramento through his group, Capitol Ministries, he has been doing the same in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., over the past three years.

In April, presidential candidate and rising star Rep. Michelle Bachman, R-Minnesota, sent out a fundraising letter on his behalf. In it she said “There are now 27 of us Members who are sponsoring the Members Bible Study which Ralph teaches every week,” and said she was “excited” by the growing number of Evangelicals in office.

“She’s a real good friend of the ministry,” Drollinger said. He said the list of Congress members involved with the group keeps growing and now includes several committee chairs and some other big names, such as Rep. Joe Wilson, R-South Carolina.

But Capitol Ministries was sued for infringement on May 3 by Capitol Commission, a North Carolina-based group that leads Bible studies in 16 state Capitols, including U.S. District court in Raleigh, N.C. The two groups are battling over the trademark on the name Capitol Commission, a term which Drollinger said he used in his Capitol Ministry business for years.  

“On the basis of common law, they still lose,” Drollinger said. “If they continue with their lawsuit, we’ll obviously roll out all of our evidence.”

Capitol Commission president Jim Young said Drollinger is intentionally creating confusion between the two groups, by “domain squatting” on the Internet and other means, partially in order to siphon off donations meant for Capitol Commission.

“There has never been one check to Capitol Commission that was meant for Capitol Ministries,” Young said. “There have been a number of checks written to Capitol Ministries that were meant for Capitol Commission.”

Drollinger claims that a trio of former Capitol Ministries employees stole mailing lists and thousands of email addresses, which he said were then given to Capitol Commission. While he has not filed a lawsuit, he claims its Capitol Commission that is intentionally hurting his ministry.

“If they’d had that name, we would never have used the name,” Young said. “We’re not stupid. Somewhere along the line, 14 months later, they decided there was a way to begin to harass us.”

This harassment, Young said, includes several websites maintained by Drollinger and assistants. For instance, the URL CapitolCommission.com redirects to RalphDrollinger.com, which is maintained by Drollinger.

Meanwhile, information from the federal Trademark Electric Application System shows a stalled trademark application from the Capitol Commission organization in North Carolina. The stated reason comes under a section titled, “Likelihood of confusion,” which lists both groups and says “Trademark Act Section 2(d) bars registration of an applied-for mark that so resembles a registered mark that it is likely that a potential consumer would be confused or mistaken or deceived.”

Drollinger said that Christians should try to settle their differences outside of court. He said he has been in talks with Capitol Commission prior to the lawsuit, something Young confirmed.

“We have tried to get them to come to the table,” Drollinger said. “It’s just like marriage. Now that they’ve gone to a public court, that line has been crossed. They have chosen their arena.”

One thing that everyone agrees on is that the vast majority of the organizations and religious leaders active in state capitols around the country under the name Capitol Commission used to work under the banner of Drollinger’s Capitol Ministries. This includes two key figures in Capitol Commission, Young and the group’s California director, Pastor Erb.

The story of the original dispute between Drollinger and Capitol Commission was told on the pages of the Capitol Weekly almost two years ago. Drollinger, a 7’2” center who played on the UCLA basketball team from 1972 to 1975, founded Capitol Ministries in 1996. For a time, his organization appeared to be on an upswing, establishing chapters and affiliates in over a dozen other state capitols.

Drollinger handed over day-to-day Sacramento operations of Capitol Ministries to Pastor Frank Erb in January 2009. At the time, Drollinger said it was in order to allow him time to expand his ministry in D.C., which, by all indications, he has done.

But it also followed a long string of public issues for Drollinger in Sacramento. In 2004, he said that women shouldn’t serve in elected office while they have children at home, leading a protest of Democratic women wearing ironic aprons. Over the next four years, he appeared to question the faith of Jews and Catholics, among other incidents. Several people interviewed for the 2009 story said that he had begun to alienate many in the Bible study group.

In March, three people who worked for Capitol Ministries abruptly left. Drollinger claims one of them stole 1,473 emails before leaving, including out of his own email box and one belonging to his wife, Danielle Drollinger.

As evidence, Drollinger produced an August 2009 letter from Warren Pearson, the owner of Pearson Technical Services, Inc. in Porter Ranch, which had done IT work for Capitol Ministries for over eight years. Pearson stated that this employee was the only person besides himself and Pastor Drollinger who had access to all the files in question. Pearson also produced several screen shots which he said showed the employee downloading numerous files about a week before they resigned.

The Capitol Weekly reached the former employee in question, who now works for a GOP elected official in Sacramento. He said only that he took personal files and nothing else when he left. Drollinger said that information in these emails and files, including mailing and donor lists, helped form the basis for the group that became Capitol Commission.

Leaders of the Sun Valley Church that conferred pastor status on Drollinger began to investigate allegations of bullying behavior and other issues in early 2009. On July 17, the leaders of Grace Community Church announced they were going to “temporarily suspend” their association with him. Later that summer, five Capitol Ministries board members resigned.

On Oct. 12, Erb resigned from Capitol Ministries. Erb said that he had not contacted the leaders at Grace Church about Drollinger, but had merely run out of time on an untenable situation.

“For me personally, I was not involved in any investigation about Ralph,” Erb said. “Like most state directors, I was just waiting on what the Capitol Ministries board members had discovered and what the church decided.”

On Oct. 15, Grace leaders said they had severed ties with Drollinger. Four days later, Drollinger send out an upbeat email announcing plans to expand in Latin America. Capitol Ministries now lists an affiliation with Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena.

But much of the organization Drollinger had created soon joined the Capitol Commission organization created by Young. Capitol Ministries’ 2009 report listed 22 state affiliates. At least 16 of those are now part of Capitol Commission. They list 18 state chapters, mainly in the Southeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic regions.

But a map on the Capitol Ministries website appears to show these very same chapters among the 25 states it highlights as affiliates. This includes Erb’s Sacramento group and Young’s organization in North Carolina. When asked about this, Drollinger pointed to the map key, which said these chapters and others are: “State
Capitols where a full-time ministry has been started by Capitol Ministries and is now financially and organizationally independent.”

The map only lists three groups “currently operated by Capitol Ministries.” This includes a Nebraska chapter, the D.C. group led by Drollinger, and a Nevada chapter run by Drollinger’s father-in-law, Dan Madison. Four other states – Arizona, Idaho, Minnesota and Tennessee – are listed as having an inactive ministry association with Capitol Ministries. Each lists leadership as “vacant.”

Drollinger also said that a “thorough investigation” by the Capitol Ministries board determined he had done nothing wrong. Young pointed out that board is made up of Drollinger, Madison and men who came in after the 2009 split, including former GOP state Senator Bill Morrow.

“The three new board members never talked to anyone,” Young said.

In April, Drollinger and Young sat down for a meeting in Drollinger’s home in Santa Clarita. Drollinger said that he thought they were there to talk about possibly reuniting the organizations, while Young said he thought they were going to talk about a legal settlement. Those talks broke down, and the lawsuit was filed days later.

“We don’t want any money,” Young said. “We just want them to stop using our name and our URLs, because that’s very deceptive.”


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