Charleston Gazette - West Virginia
Former Masonic grand master denies allegations of racism
December 9, 2010
By Andrew Clevenger
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former grand master of the West Virginia branch of the Masons said Thursday in Kanawha Circuit Court that any allegation or insinuation of racism within the organization is "ridiculous."
"[That suggestion] makes me feel disgusted," said Charles F. Coleman II, who served as grand master of the state's Grand Lodge between October 2006 and October 2007.
Coleman and his immediate successor, Charlie L. Montgomery, were sued in 2008 by Frank J. Haas, a former grand master from Wellsburg, who alleged that they defamed him and violated Masonic due process by summarily expelling him from the fraternal organization.
Haas maintained that immediately upon taking office, Coleman repealed the progressive reforms Haas had enacted, which were intended to make West Virginia Masonry more inclusive in terms of race, religion, age and disabilities. Eventually, some Masons began criticizing Coleman and Montgomery on an online message board called Masonic Crusade.
Coleman, a union representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers from Teays Valley, testified that as Grand Master, he issued an edict setting aside the vote approving Haas' agenda not because he was unhappy with the reforms, but because he witnessed irregularities during the vote, which made it constitutionally invalid.
At one point, a Mason approached the ballot box holding five ballots, held up five fingers, and deposited the votes into the ballot box, he said.
Coleman assumed that the member meant to convey that he was voting on behalf of five Masons, which is not allowed, he said.
"It constitutes improper voting, and destroys the secrecy of the ballot, and its accuracy, of course," he said.
Coleman said he raised the issue with Haas, who decided to proceed with the vote, which was part of the annual communication that marked the end of Haas' yearlong tenure as grand master. When the vote resulted in a tie, Haas cast a tie-breaking vote, and the reforms passed.
Coleman said that as grand master, he was required to set aside a vote that he knew was improper. Because of the ensuing confusion about what had transpired at the annual communication, he sent a letter to all West Virginia lodges the following month intended to clarify lingering issues.
One of those issues was a lodge master's ability to exclude visitors at his discretion. Haas, unhappy with the treatment of a black member of a group recognized and accepted by the Masons who was denied entrance to a Masonic meeting in Moundsville, had reminded Masons that nationality, race or religion was not a justifiable reason to keep someone out.
Haas' attorneys have tried to portray Coleman's letter as using coded language to emphasize that lodge masters, in the interest of the "peace and harmony" of the lodge, could exclude anyone they pleased.
Coleman disputed that interpretation of his letter, insisting that he only meant to remind Masons of the existing policy, which, as Haas had correctly stated, prohibited masters from excluding visitors based on race.
Toward the end of Coleman's term, a group of Masons began to engage in what he termed "subversive activity" by questioning, first via e-mail and then on the Masonic Crusade website, why Haas' reforms had been set aside and no revote scheduled.
Masonic law forbids politicking, or trying to control or influence the outcome of the Grand Lodge's annual votes, he said.
When Masonic documents began appearing on the renegade website, he and Montgomery, who was poised to replace him, took actions to figure out who the ringleaders were, he said.
First, they sent a letter to every lodge that contained hidden numeric codes in the seal, so that if a version of the letter ended up on the website, they could identify which lodge it came from, he said. A second letter contained a different number of spaces for different lodges, again allowing Coleman and Montgomery to identify the offending lodge.
The letters contained specific instructions that they were not to be shared, he said.
"It was an effort to figure out who the rule breakers were. It wasn't an improper trap," he said.
Coleman did not say which, if any, lodges or individuals were implicated when the letters were posted online.
Eventually, Montgomery asked Coleman to prepare edicts expelling Haas and Richard Bosely, a Mason who had repeatedly confronted Coleman over why formal charges had not been brought against the Mason who voted five times, Coleman said.
Montgomery hoped that discipline wouldn't be necessary, but wanted the edicts in case he had to use them when he confronted them at a meeting in Wellsburg on Nov. 19, 2007, Coleman said.
Coleman recalled the meeting differently than Haas and Bosely, who testified Tuesday that an angry Montgomery berated them and accused them of lying about their involvement with the Masonic Crusade before expelling them.
Coleman said that Montgomery gave them a chance to come clean, and persisted when Haas initially said he'd never heard of the Masonic Crusade. After Haas ultimately admitted that he had participated in the website and would continue to support its positions, Montgomery expelled them, Coleman said.
Haas eventually established residency in Ohio and joined the Ohio Masons, which resulted in the West Virginia branch severing ties with it.
Coleman testified that the West Virginia Masons have two black members, but acknowledged that both had joined since Haas filed his lawsuit in 2008.
Haas took preliminary steps to initiate formal relations with the local branch of the Prince Hall Lodge by meeting with his counterpart, but an official relationship was never formalized, Coleman said.
Prince Hall lodges -- named after Prince Hall, an African-American man who fought in the Revolutionary War and founded a lodge in Massachusetts in 1784 -- accept black members, who are traditionally not welcome in mainstream Masonic lodges, according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed in this case in support of Haas by the West Virginia branch.
West Virginia is one of only 10 states where the Grand Lodge does not recognize the state's Prince Hall lodges, according to the brief.
On Wednesday, defense lawyers asked Judge Carrie Webster to dismiss Haas' lawsuit based on the state Supreme Court's recent ruling that the state Secondary School Activities Commission, as a private, voluntary organization, had the right to enforce its own rules as it sees fit.
The Supreme Court's decision Tuesday reversed Webster, who had granted a temporary restraining order and injunction against the SSAC to prevent it from enforcing suspensions against four South Charleston football players.
The Masons, similar to the SSAC, are a private organization, and with no public policy at issue, how they enforce their own laws should not be up to a court to decide, the motion argues.
Reach Andrew Clevenger at [email protected] or 304-348-1723.