What do Christian pharisees do when their target, a single mother and successful businesswoman, will not shrink in fear of their highly abusive demands and submit to their delusional self-appointed authority? They collude to defame her and deprive her of the livelihood that supports her family. This time, they picked the wrong target, because Cheryl did not go away quietly like prior victims; she chose to fight. This is a detailed synopsis of the landmark Sherman Anti-Trust case, Seelhoff v. Welch.
In early 1994, Cheryl Lindsey was the mother of nine children, owner of a successful family business, and a rising star in the Christian homeschool speaking circuit. Her name was widely recognized and her talks attracted large audiences. Cheryl’s publishing and speaking provided sole support for her family. Her magazine had 15,000 subscribers, and tapes of her speaking engagements made substantial money for convention hosts. Another prominent Christian homeschooling publisher, Mary Pride, had offered to pay Cheryl Lindsey to substitute Gentle Spirit as a way to satisfy Pride’s subscriber obligations for her failing newsletter, “Help for Growing Families.”
Through a religious discussion folder on the Internet, Cheryl began an ongoing conversation with Rick Seelhoff, a computer programmer in Minnesota. The details of her relationship with Rick, and of the dissolution of her long-troubled marriage were about to be used against her by some of the Christian homeschool movement’s most influential and well-known leaders, in a collaborative attempt to drive her from the marketplace. The defendants asserted that the motivation for their actions was biblical scripture, and their goals were “restoration of the family” and fulfilling responsibility.
Michael Boutot, Sue Welch, Mary Pride and Gregg Harris were not Cheryl’s mentors, confidants, friends, spiritual advisors or superiors; they knew her little more than by name. Still, each chose to join a campaign that used personal information against Cheryl’s business. Exerted on a lesser spirit, that might have resulted in disaster. But Cheryl chose to fight.
In March of 1994, Cheryl’s husband, Claude, moved away due to intensifying marital problems. He left Washington State and was living in Louisiana. The following month, Cheryl met Rick Seelhoff face to face at a workshop in Dallas, where she was a speaker. About two weeks later Cheryl confessed to her pastor about the new relationship.
Pastor Joe Williams of Calvary Chapel of Tacoma, and his wife, Irene, were long-time, close friends of Cheryl and Claude. They heard Cheryl’s confession, and her fear that Claude might become violent when he learned of it. The pastor told Cheryl that she should cut off her relationship with Rick Seelhoff. Cheryl withdrew from the church and did not attend any services thereafter.
During the month of May, Rick moved to the Key Peninsula, to live near Cheryl. On May 31, Cheryl’s estranged husband returned temporarily. He stayed with the Williamses, who were aware of Claude’s anger problems and the anti-harassment order Cheryl obtained against him. Claude returned to Louisiana permanently on June 21, indicating to the Williamses, Cheryl, and the children, that he had no interest in reconciling the marriage. Cheryl decided to file for divorce.
On June 17, 1994, Cheryl and Rick departed for the Christian Home Educators of Ohio convention, where Cheryl had a speaking engagement. CHEO had asked for her keynote address, “Titus 2, Living in a Feminist Age.”
“Titus 2” refers to a biblical passage that Cheryl had long quoted in her publication. It advises women to be “keepers at home…and obedient to their own husbands.” But Cheryl’s life had moved away from alignment with those conditions. She had been writing a monthly magazine exhorting women to submit to and obey their husbands, as she had done through twenty years of marriage, until two months prior. That very obedience and submission had helped create an abusive situation for Cheryl and her children.
In addition to the keynote address, Cheryl was scheduled to give six workshops at the convention. Although she had reservations about delivering her talks under the circumstances, the Gentle Spirit publisher had agreed to speak over a year prior, and Cheryl felt obligated because she knew that many people would be flying in to hear her. On the way to the CHEO convention, Cheryl and Rick spent a few days at Rick’s mother’s house in Minnesota, and received counseling from Rick’s pastor.
During the convention, held June 23-25, Cheryl’s estranged husband phoned Gregg Harris, then the owner of Christian Life Workshops (CLW) and later a columnist at Crosswalk.com and owner of Noble Publishing. Cheryl had previously spoken at CLW’s homeschooling conferences.
Claude, who had received the notice of divorce on the eve of the CHEO conference, told Harris that Cheryl was having an affair with Rick, and asked him to look for evidence in case Rick was at the conference. Harris said he needed verification, asked for the pastor’s number, and called the Williamses to confirm. He agreed to watch Cheryl, and reported that he didn’t see her with anyone likely to be Rick.
The witnesses’ conflicting court testimony makes unclear the order of who called whom, but reveals the defendants’ choosing to insert themselves into Cheryl’s personal life. Court records indicate that Welch and Harris spoke to each other; that both initiated talk of church discipline with Cheryl’s former pastor; each asked whether Williams would exercise discipline; and that the Williamses had never publicly disciplined any church member in their 10-11 years at Calvary Chapel Tacoma.
To confirm suspicions about Cheryl, Harris deceived Rick into disclosing that he had been at the conference. He obtained Rick’s phone number and called. When Rick answered, Harris asked if he might have lost a credit card at the hotel in Columbus, Ohio, which was the hotel where Cheryl had stayed. When Rick said “yes,” Harris made a remark about it being taken care of and hung up the phone.
Harris then notified Pastor Williams, because “the pastor’s responsibility is to watch for the souls of their congregation.” Harris also informed Welch so she could keep The Teaching Home from “being used in this scandal.” Harris also gave Pastor Williams’ number to Welch.
This was not the first time the publisher of The Teaching Home had a worry about Cheryl. A year prior to the CHEO convention she phoned its Executive Director, Michael Boutot, after learning that Cheryl’s family is biracial. Welch felt that Cheryl had purposely hidden this, and the public deserved to know that she was in an interracial marriage.
Boutot sensed Welch was asking him to participate in making it an issue, and he was disturbed because he felt the information was irrelevant. When he voiced his opinion, Welch dropped the issue with him.
The publisher of The Teaching Home also expressed her concern to Cheryl, telling the speaker that if she did not disclose that her family was biracial, Cheryl’s workshops would not be listed in Welch’s magazine. Cheryl consulted her attorney and replied with a letter. The Gentle Spirit publisher told Welch “it is not appropriate to concern oneself with the color of skin of the people with you are doing business with.”
Welch responded with a letter saying she had a change of heart and would be glad to list Cheryl’s speaking engagements. Welch’s testimony on the topic differs. She said she had “absolutely no problem with an interracial marriage,” but was simply passing along the concerns of people who sponsor the conferences.
To verify the latest information on Cheryl, Welch contacted the Williamses and introduced herself as the owner of The Teaching Home magazine. She said she needed to confirm some information regarding Cheryl before informing CHEO’s Executive Director, Michael Boutot. When Welch asked whether the Williamses were going to exercise discipline against Cheryl, Joe replied that he would.
While the Gentle Spirit publisher was en route to the conference, the pastor’s wife contacted Cheryl’s family with an urgent request to speak with Cheryl. When Cheryl returned Irene’s call, the pastor’s wife said she was considering informing CHEO about the relationship Cheryl had with Rick.
Cheryl told Irene she had no right to interfere, especially since Cheryl was no longer connected to the church in any way. Cheryl also spoke with the pastor, who did not agree with his wife and believed it was not right to deliver such an ultimatum. Irene decided to obey her husband, but she didn’t need to tell CHEO; Boutot found out from another source.
On July 1, 1994, after Cheryl had returned to Washington from Ohio, Sue Welch called to give Boutot information on Cheryl’s personal life. He felt it necessary to document the matter, should the need arise for him to refer to the discussions. Welch played an audio recording of Irene Williams reading the letter of church discipline, gave Boutot the pastor’s number and informed him that Christian Life Workshop owner, Harris, was also aware of matters.
Soon after speaking to Welch, Boutot called the Williamses. They corroborated what Welch had said and affirmed a need to proceed with the church discipline. The Williamses said they would fax him a copy of the letter, and gave him Claude’s number in Louisiana, so Boutot could call to further confirm the information.
According to Joe Williams, CHEO Executive Director Boutot had called in an irate condition, questioned Williams’ spiritual authority, and castigated him for “letting” Cheryl speak when he knew she was involved with another man. He wanted to know why Williams didn’t call to warn CHEO. Had Boutot known Cheryl was involved with another man, he would have recommended to the Board of Directors that she not be allowed to speak on any of her topics, even “Living a Simple Life,” or “Cooking a Hundred Meals in a Day.” Boutot believed any topic Cheryl spoke on would have focused on her family, therefore he would have excluded her entirely.
At the trial, Boutot said he did not remember criticizing Williams. The CHEO’s former Executive Director’s memory often failed him during testimony, and he frequently responded to questions with “I don’t recall,” or “I can’t confirm or deny that.”
Pastor Williams also spoke with Boutot and Welch about demanding proofs of repentance. If Cheryl did not show she was repentant, the Williamses would exercise “discipline,” meaning they would expose her to the church, in order to bring her “into obedience in the Lord and back into the fold.” According to Williams, Boutot came up with the idea of requiring from Cheryl some “proofs of repentance,” and presented the list of demands.
Initially, the Williamses planned only to read the letter of exposure to the congregation at Calvary Chapel, about 40-50 adult members. But when Boutot and Harris told him that Rick was in the same room with Cheryl, Joe Williams felt betrayed, because he believed she had repented. After speaking with the Christian homeschool leaders, Williams decided to present his letter to a wider audience.
Sue Welch said she didn’t recall whether she had been involved in wording the letter of discipline, although her phone notes contain some language identical with the letter attributed to Joe and Irene Williams. The publisher of The Teaching Home seemed to be confused in her testimony and the plaintiff’s attorneys moved to publish her deposition. Numerous times she responded to questions with statements like, “I don’t have memory of that right now, but I am certain it could have.”
Pastor Williams was afraid of a lawsuit and wanted to ensure his exposure letter didn’t contain anything that could cause trouble for him. Sue Welch also worried about the legality of the group’s actions, especially concerning the effect on Cheryl’s business. She put the Williamses in touch with her lawyer, Michael Farris. Farris was president of the Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA), Legal Editor of The Teaching Home, and Executive Producer at Crosswalk.com. Pastor Williams testified that he read the letter to Farris, who gave his approval.
Farris suggested Welch should notify people in a letter that came from Cheryl’s former pastor. Welch requested a cover letter from the Williamses, saying the pastor and his wife were asking for the publisher’s help in notifying Christian Homeschool Organization (CHO) leaders of the personal information on Cheryl.
CHO was a group of state organizations that had a working agreement with Welch. The publisher of The Teaching Home thought it important to notify the CHO state leaders, who might consider Cheryl as a speaker.
Welch created a “packet” of information consisting of the letter from the Williamses, a photocopy of the June 27th Tacoma News Tribune which indicated Cheryl’s divorce filing, and the cover letter from the Williamses. That letter includes the sentence, “We request Sue Welch of ‘The Teaching Home’ magazine to facilitate for us the notification of Christian State Homeschool Organization Leaders of this information regarding our local church discipline of Cheryl Lindsey.” Circulating the packet, Welch expected, would cause her associated Christian homeschooling organizations to cancel any speaking engagements Cheryl had arranged with them, and they would not invite her to speak “at least for some time.”
The publisher of The Teaching Home said she had nothing to do with the writing of the church discipline letter – only the cover letter, which she wanted to come from the minister so she could distance herself because “it was a church matter.” Welch admitted that she also “did not want to have to answer any questions.”
The timing is not clear, but at some point, Sue Welch discussed with Boutot that she was prepared to replace Gentle Spirit with The Teaching Home. Welch also spoke to Boutot about the amount of money in the Gentle Spirit bank account and informed the CHEO Executive Director that “GS was to be no more.”
Harris, Welch and Boutot all requested copies of the letter of exposure, and the Williamses complied. Irene and Joe had decided to notify “the Body of Christ,” meaning all Christians, believing it was their moral obligation because Cheryl was a “public figure.”
Cheryl had almost no knowledge of what had transpired while she was out of town. Back home, she stopped by the Williams house to pick up some of her children’s belongings left behind when they visited their father. The Williamses confronted Cheryl, telling her they knew she had been with Rick during the convention and they had spoken to the two Christian homeschool leaders, Welch and Harris.
The Williamses presented her with the “proofs of repentance.” They told Cheryl that she should “step down from public ministry,” refrain from public speaking, not spend time alone, give up her beeper and her personal P.O. box, stop publishing Gentle Spirit, stop answering her phone, turn over the contents of her business and personal bank accounts to a third party, agree to not defend herself, fire her attorneys, withdraw the restraining orders she had obtained to protect her family and business, and replace Gentle Spirit with The Teaching Home magazine.
The pastor and his wife told Cheryl that they would expose her to the church if she did not perform the “proofs.” Cheryl was surprised, because she was no longer a part of the church, and she would not agree, as a single parent of nine, to refrain from answering her phone, or to give up the business that supported her family.
The day after the confrontation, Cheryl heard that the letter of discipline would be read to the congregation, and she requested that Irene read it over the phone. Desperate to keep it from going further, Cheryl wrote a letter dated June 29, 1994, addressed to Welch, Harris, the Williamses, and others. She pleaded for their understanding and asked them not to expose her to the homeschooling community. She faxed it to them but learned that Welch, Sharon Grimes, and Jonathon Lindvall had already begun to inform conference hosts and Cheryl’s engagements with them would be cancelled. Cheryl believes the behavior and demands were “extremely destructive and not consistent with Christian love.” She thinks they were justifying it like “people who bomb abortion clinics believe that they do it also out of love.”
Cheryl was flabbergasted when Sue Welch told her Jonathon Lindvall – owner of the Bold Christian Living ministry – had cancelled her talks. He had not arranged her speaking engagements, he wasn’t sponsoring any of the conferences, and he had no connection with Gentle Spirit other than selling them at his conferences.
Cheryl’s appointment as women’s keynote speaker at the Loving Education At Home (LEAH) conference was terminated, as was an engagement at a conference in southern California. Harris canceled her appearance at his Atlanta conference, and a tentative speaking engagement in Missouri was also crossed out.
Once Welch put out the word, Cheryl never again received an invitation to speak at any state conferences or to have a table at any of them, although she had annually for many years prior.
On July 3, 1994, Cheryl’s former pastor read the “letter of discipline” to the congregation at Calvary Chapel’s Sunday morning service. The letter stated that Cheryl had “been involved in an ongoing adulterous relationship with lying,” there had been no evidence of her “willingness to reconcile with Claude,” and Cheryl had filed for divorce outside of scriptural grounds. Yet, Claude had already expressed to Williams his lack of interest in reconciliation. Cheryl was aware she had been publicly excommunicated at the church that morning by Joe and Irene Williams, her closest friends. She felt as if she were “under siege.”
Illustrating the depth of the Williamses lack of good judgment and receipt of wise counsel is the deposition testimony of Pastor Chuck Smith, leader of the 300-plus Calvary Chapel churches. Smith has a church of over 10,000 people, has been a pastor 30 years and has never gone to the “third step” of church discipline, public exposure. Smith stated that a pastor’s breach of confidentiality is a serious matter, one he would consider “foolish” and “naive.” Pastor Joe Williams had not asked Smith for advice before going forward with his version of discipline.
The evening of July 3rd, Cheryl received a call from Michael Boutot of CHEO. Despite Cheryl telling him that she had left the church in April, Boutot presented her with a list of “agreements,” steps he wanted her to take in order to prove her compliance with the “church” discipline. The “agreements” – two of which were Boutot’s ideas – were that Cheryl would: return the honorarium from the CHEO conference (which she had already suggested, although attendees had expressed complete satisfaction with her presentations); write a letter to Rick Seelhoff, breaking off the relationship and present a draft copy to Boutot for his prior approval; dismiss the divorce proceedings and agree to counseling out of state; and call Boutot the following day at 6 p.m.
Boutot’s call was completely unexpected. It was the first Cheryl knew that the CHEO Chairman had been involved. She listened to the list of “agreements” in absolute horror, totally numb. Cheryl felt angry and shocked, and as she recounted, “I knew I was up against something huge and I was all alone.”
Boutot told Cheryl that if she didn’t comply with his proofs – and if she was truly a Christian – he expected her untimely death, and that if she did not pass away in that fashion, it would indicate she is not a true believer, and she would be turned over to Satan.
Boutot’s testimony is that Cheryl agreed to the “proofs.” Cheryl believes the CHEO Executive Director construed her terror as acquiescence. She agreed only to return the honorarium and to try to write the letter to Rick. Cheryl indicated she would try to meet Boutot’s other proofs, but she was not pleased about the idea of leaving her children to fly to Iowa for counseling with her estranged husband, Claude, and said she never indicated she would turn over her bank accounts to anyone.
That night Boutot kept late hours. Around midnight he received a call from Bold Christian Living’s Jonathan Lindvall, who suggested finding someone to “escort Rick out.” Lindvall told Boutot he would call Welch, to let her know that Cheryl was “agreeing with these conditions.”
At 12:30 a.m., Boutot received a call from Cheryl’s son, stating that his mother had been out alone for two and a half hours that morning, that Cheryl said she was being coerced, and she wanted to divorce Claude and marry Rick. Two hours later, Boutot called one of Cheryl’s sons while attempting to verify some information. Then he phoned Joe Williams. During the trial Boutot testified that he did not remember the exact reason, except it had to do with his desire “to get the Lindsey family back together.”
When presented with his phone notes Boutot said that one of the Williamses had suggested further “fruits” or proofs of repentance, and that Cheryl should prepare a letter of apology – to Williams, the church, Harris, Welch, Boutot, Lindvall, and Claude, plus the Gentle Spirit subscribers – and fax this to Boutot for his approval before sending it. Cheryl wrote the required letter to Rick, but couldn’t go through with it. She felt trapped and blackmailed, as though she had no choice.
The evening of July 5, 1994, Boutot spoke to Irene Williams, who had spoken to HSLDA’s Michael Farris and Sue Welch of The Teaching Home. Although Boutot did not appear to remember specifics in the courtroom, the CHEO chairman’s phone notes from that evening hint at what transpired between the Williamses and the Christian homeschool leaders. Boutot’s notes include these phrases: “Ideally letter needs to come from Cheryl… Letter to leaders (also subscribers), include: Under church discipline; specify sins (lying and adultery); decline all speaking, et cetera; potential replace Gentle Spirit with The Teaching Home. Michael Farris is agreeing with direction. Would rather letter publicizing be letter from Cheryl versus others. Letter needs to be reviewed by me… Cheryl needs to advise advertisers and columnists so they don’t continue to write. Feels I need to call Dr. Dobson, Focus on the Family, as they have been promoting and endorsing.”
Later that evening, Boutot wanted to check on Cheryl, but she would not answer the phone or reply to his messages on her answering machine. Attempting to track down Cheryl, Boutot left a message on her parents’ answering machine. He also called Jonathan Lindvall, Irene, and Cheryl’s son, Roland Lindsey, to let them know Cheryl was making herself unavailable. When the CHEO Chairman got through by circumventing the answering machine, Cheryl refused to talk with him. Her mother called Boutot, accused him of “trying to ruin Cheryl’s life,” told him that her daughter would not cooperate any more, and that Cheryl wanted him to leave her alone.
At that, the CHEO Executive Director “removed himself from the situation,” because it was evident that Cheryl had changed her mind. He felt he was in a position to try to lead her to restoration of the family and there was nothing left to do. Boutot advised Roland Lindsey, Jonathan Lindvall, Cheryl’s estranged husband and Pastor Joe Williams to remove themselves and “turn [her] over to Satan.”
The next phase of the campaign against Cheryl began on July 14, 1994, when Sue Welch contacted Christian homeschool publisher Mary Pride. Welch knew Pride was a direct competitor with Cheryl because of her expiring magazine, Help for Growing Families. Welch also was aware of Pride’s online presence.
Mary Pride was not a member of the Christian state organizations, so Welch had no working contract duty to inform her. Pride testified that Welch contacted her, even though the two hadn’t communicated about anything having to do with homeschooling or the back-to-the-home movement or homeschooling industries for a long time.
Welch’s fax to Pride included a handwritten note, along with the exposure letter packet. Pride asked her employee, David Ayers, to investigate Cheryl with an eye for a potential expose. Ayers had never seen an article on anyone’s personal life in Pride’s publications before. In his testimony, Ayers was sure the expose was Pride’s idea. But court transcripts show Pride had repeatedly made a point of not remembering who originated the idea.
Ayers said Pride told him the reason for the expose was to make sure the people in the homeschooling community and the whole circle of Christianity were not deceived, “to eliminate rumors with cold, hard, fact.” Ayers felt the issue had aired enough and no one was being deceived. He also felt a small company like Pride’s could not handle the potential liabilities, and was afraid a lawsuit would result.
Ayers sent Pride a memo saying he was refusing, and she acquiesced. The day she received Welch’s fax, Pride was due to take her final issue of Help to the printer. The newsletter hadn’t been a big moneymaker, and Pride planned to let it die because Gentle Spirit had met the needs of the target audience. If Gentle Spirit was gone, she felt there would be a very important gap, which her magazine could fill.
Pride sent out her summer 1994 newsletter, disclosing the “horrifying” information about Cheryl’s divorce, conjecturing about the future dependability of Gentle Spirit, and asking readers to commit to renewing subscriptions. Explaining her vision, Pride wrote, “It had always been my dream to make Help a national newsstand magazine, capable of competing with the secular humanist titles on their own turf…Will you support me in making Help a viable magazine that cannot only fill the gaping void left by Gentle Spirit, but perhaps finally get a Christian point of view into the family magazine marketplace?”
Pride told Ayers to look at Gentle Spirit for potential advertisers that might sustain Help. According to Ayers, the publisher wrote a letter, putting Ayers’ name on it, giving him the title “advertising sales manager,” and mailed them on July 26, 1994. Ayers believed it was unfair; he felt there was an “attack side to it.” He told Pride he didn’t want to work on it and she let it rest.
Mary Pride also began an Internet campaign, using the information about Cheryl’s personal life as a starting point for the revitalization of Help.
On July 20, 1994, Karen Faye posted a message titled, “The Truth About Cheryl,” on AOL in the Gentle Spirit folder and on CompuServe and Prodigy. Karen Faye was a big fan of Help for Growing Families. She and Pride had posted back and forth on a variety of topics. In her testimony, Pride said she “cannot confirm or deny” that she may have sent Karen Faye a post in response to the rumors about Gentle Spirit and Cheryl. She disclosed she had informed Karen Faye about the pastor’s letter and divorce filing. Pride admitted she probably sent the message to Karen Faye before “The Truth About Cheryl” was posted, and that she was probably the first person to share this information with Karen Faye.
“The Truth About Cheryl” was “almost word for word” the letter of exposure from Calvary Chapel. It also encouraged readers to contact Cheryl’s former pastor. In response, some people posted thanks and others said it didn’t belong online.
Virginia Hunt, a long-time and daily user of the AOL boards, said she had not seen Pride post in that folder any time previously, but once the announcement was presented, the Practical Homeschooling editor began to make her presence known. Pride’s posts thanked the original poster and chastised the people who thought it was the wrong place for such information, saying it was important to expose, to tell the truth so people know.
Four days after “The Truth About Cheryl” appeared, Pride proclaimed she was starting a new folder entitled “Help for Growing Families,” which she announced in the Gentle Spirit folder. Hunt said that topics in the Help folder were much the same as in the Gentle Spirit folder before it had been “derailed by the announcement of Cheryl’s sin.”
Illustrating Pride’s influence on Christian homeschooling is the testimony of Pride’s employee, David Ayers: “in The Way Home, Mary had strongly encouraged women to have as many children as God sent, not to use birth control… [and] she had letters… from women that had stopped using birth control because of her book.”
On August 12, 1994, Pride created a folder to publicize and discuss “divorce and re-marriage.” The topics were “Cheryl and Rick and their relationship, and whether it was legitimate or whether it wasn’t. Whether or not they should be able to be divorced… the biblical basis of divorce and remarriage,” Virginia Hunt said.
Pride called for people to stop associating with Cheryl, and for her to discontinue publishing Gentle Spirit. She made these posts “all over AOL,” said Hunt. She even sent out e-mails to individuals, telling them to “Please look at the message I just posted about Gentle Spirit.” In her posts, Pride went as far as to compare “remarried persons” to child molesters and serial murderers, concluding that, if one could forgive divorce and remarriage, “you should be willing to have a child molester run the nursery and a serial murderer stand there with a knife in his hand slicing the bread for the fellowship meal.”
Pride’s new “divorce and remarriage” folder received about 200 posts per day. At one point, it received over 1,500 in a day. It was by far the most active folder on AOL.
Like AOL, Prodigy had a folder devoted to the rumors behind the news, and posts from AOL were copied verbatim to Prodigy. When Rick asked Prodigy’s board monitor to remove the inflammatory posts, the entire folder was permanently deleted. Rick didn’t find any similar folders on CompuServe, but he overlooked the Christian section of that server.
AOL board monitors let the discourse continue, but indicated they were watching it closely. A good number of posts were pulled, especially in the first weeks. The monitor frequently added warning messages aimed at those who were “flaming,” using inflammatory language and derogatory terms, like “harlot” and “whore.”
Because of Welch’s circulation of the information packets to homeschooling leaders and state organizations, and Pride’s Internet campaign, Cheryl soon began to receive an avalanche of messages. The Gentle Spirit fax machine and answering machine worked overtime, receiving a tremendous amount of messages. Rick said the fax paper “would just roll across the floor and the floor was covered in…paper…The phone machine was filled up…there [were] 50 messages in there, the light blinking. And every one of those…said ‘we heard, what are you doing? What’s wrong? How dare you?'”
During the month of July, five Christian publications carried news of Cheryl’s personal life. The Gentle Spirit columnists quit, and many of the advertisers withdrew their ads and asked for refunds. The phone was ringing constantly, the fax machine churning, and an onslaught of subscription cancellations ensued.
In September 1994 Pride made a final attempt to resurrect her deceased Help newsletter. Although Pride testified that she had hired David Ayers to conduct research and assist with advertising, Ayers says he understood his job was research director, to research educational issues and help with Practical Homeschooling. Very soon he found himself doing work he hadn’t expected. Pride had told Ayers that Help would be out of publication by the time he began employment, but she was trying to re-start the newsletter and wanted Ayers to assist with finding advertisers.
Initially Pride testified that neither she or anybody on her behalf undertook an investigation to find out if the Gentle Spirit advertisers would be interested in advertising in Help, even claiming she would be surprised to learn that Ayers called advertisers, asking them to switch to Help. But when confronted with a document titled “Notes for speaking with Potential advertisers – H.E.L.P.” Pride admitted she had asked Ayers to produce such a document. The first line reads “For those considering shifting to Help from Gentle Spirit.” The last paragraph includes: “We are presenting Help…specifically as an alternative to Gentle Spirit…Our readers are similar to GS’s.”
Ayers vividly remembered speaking with one advertiser from Gentle Spirit, Phil Lancaster, publisher of Patriarch magazine. Ayers believed “it was a big deal because [Pride] and Phil didn’t speak to each other.”
Despite her efforts, the editor of Help couldn’t drum up enough interest from subscribers or advertisers. The summer 1994 issue was the last. According to David Ayers’ testimony, around the third week of September, Pride revived the idea of printing an expose on Cheryl in her Practical Homeschooling magazine.
As part of the piece, Pride wanted Ayers to interview Cheryl and Rick, using a list of queries she provided, Ayers stated. But Ayers felt the interview questions were too personal; he couldn’t imagine sitting down and asking such things. [Ayers, 820] Ayers testified that if Pride ordered him to go forward he would have to resign. Ultimately, even though he had relocated his family upon accepting the job, Ayers did resign.
Pride’s deposition states that she did not pursue the expose because she had decided that she did not want to “get involved in heavy journalistic types of pieces.” The publisher of Practical Homeschooling said she had not been sure if it was a good idea to present such an article, but admitted she had been willing to pay Ayers to investigate. Again Pride made a point of not remembering where the expose idea originated. Her words conflicted with Welch’s testimony as well as with Ayers’.
Much of Pride’s recollection was weak on the day she testified. The publisher of Practical Homeschooling said she hadn’t asked Ayers to call Gentle Spirit advertisers or to put together an article on Cheryl. Pride’s testimony changed when Duffy, the plaintiff’s attorney, presented her with Exhibit 156, an email to her from David Ayers, which refers to just such an article.
The Internet message boards continued to be overrun with messages related to Cheryl and her private life. Cheryl received an enormous amount of phone calls and letters, referring to the letter of discipline she thought had only been read to the local church. It was evident that it had been circulated nationally.
Despite professional counseling, Cheryl was depressed, and cried constantly. She tried to defend herself, and planned to put out an issue of Gentle Spirit, but it was impossible for her to write.
In January 1995, Sue Welch published a notice about Cheryl in her State Leader’s Memo. The notice wrongly announced that Cheryl’s divorce was final–it would not be for another eight months–and “she is planning to marry the man who was involved in sin with her.” The column also asserted that Cheryl lied about putting out Gentle Spirit, and she was “misrepresenting her [former] husband.” It ended by asking readers to pray that people “are protected from her false teachings.”
The State Leader’s Memo announced the information in a column titled “We Wish We Didn’t Have to Tell You, But You May Need to Know…” which details the shortcomings of other people as well, such as one who was “active in speaking against HSLDA and homeschool leaders.”
In February 1995, Cheryl published an issue of Gentle Spirit. In it, she told her version of the events, and offered subscribers the option of receiving the remainder of their subscriptions in back issues, which were very popular. Cheryl received a lot of emotional support from readers who were angry about what happened to her. They understood she had opposition from key leaders in the Christian homeschooling industry. She received some financial assistance, but not enough to sustain publishing. She also continued to receive plenty of hate mail. Cheryl would not publish another issue of Gentle Spirit for over four years.
As soon as the February 1995 issue came out, one of Cheryl’s competitors, Mary Pride of Practical Homeschooling, came online and demanded that she refund instead of publish. Still, many of Cheryl’s readers chose the back-issue offer.
The March/April 1995 issue of Patriarch magazine devoted 1/3 of its pages to a piece titled “An Open Letter to Cheryl Lindsey.” The author and publisher, Phil Lancaster, a pastor, claimed he had been “charged to correct the errant and warn against them.” Lancaster’s “letter” said that even if Cheryl’s allegations about Claude’s abuses were true, divorce is not warranted, and he reminded her that “women are called to…not give in to the natural fears of following a sinful man.”
Another possible motivation for Lancaster’s “Open Letter” is revealed by its text. He urged Cheryl to return to her church and her estranged husband, and to stop defending herself. The Patriarch publisher described Cheryl’s influence as greater “in the lives of many women than their pastors or elders…you are a leader/teacher among women.” And continued by expressing his fear that, because of Cheryl’s example “many women who also have hard marriages will feel justified to make ungodly choices like divorce.”
Cheryl’s divorce was final on August 30, 1995. She and Rick Seelhoff married six days later. Realizing the heavy criticisms and publicity would prevent her from generating enough business to support publication of her magazine for some time, Cheryl decided the next best thing was to publish online. According to documents on file at the Pierce County Superior Court, on October 10, 1995, she announced Gentle Spirit Online.
Less than two weeks later, Mary Pride announced her new magazine, Big Happy Family. She promised the first issue would be out within two weeks; but it was not mailed out until the following April. The debut magazine appeared similar to Gentle Spirit; the topics were quite alike, the unusual frequency was the same and the price was very similar. During her testimony, Pride explained that the subject matter of her new magazine include birth and babies, money management, recipes, midwifery, plus a letters section. Like Gentle Spirit, Big Happy Family might address homeschooling, but was not specifically dedicated to the issue.
With the start of Gentle Spirit Online, the firestorms on the Internet were rekindled. Cheryl received heavy criticism and threats for daring to publish on the Web.
In late October of 1995, Sue Welch heard rumor that Cheryl was speaking somewhere on the East Coast. The Teaching Home’s editor launched an investigation to find out if Cheryl had the audacity, as Welch’s phone notes label it, to speak after 14 months had passed. Welch’s notes reveal she contacted several people and spoke to Cheryl’s former pastor before learning that the rumor was false.
In November 1996, visitors to the Practical Homeschool folder on AOL were urged to report Cheryl to the Fraud Investigations unit of the US Postmaster’s office. Six months later, in May of 1997, Cheryl filed suit against Calvary Chapel of Tacoma, Joe and Irene Williams, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, The Teaching Home and Sue Welch, Gregg Harris, Christian Home Educators of Ohio and its Chairman Michael Boutot, and Bill and Mary Pride, alleging a number of causes of action, among them defamation, outrage, interference with commerce, and violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act of the United States. Suddenly, the harassment stopped.
Michael Boutot, Calvary Costa Mesa, and Gregg Harris settled in March of 1998, well before the trial began. Mary Pride settled in August of 1998, just prior to the trial. The court convened on August 14, 1998. A no-nonsense judge chastised lawyers for both sides. He repeatedly reprimanded one of the defense attorneys to stop bringing up Biblical law, reminding him that the court was not ruled by that text, and he denied testimony from the defense’s expert witness on Christian religion. Judge Burgess also excluded two Plaintiff’s witnesses: Mark Hegener of Home Education Magazine, and homeschooling author Dr. Raymond Moore. Both would have presented testimony relating that Sue Welch and others had been previously involved in similar smear campaigns. The intent was to show that the actions against Cheryl weren’t about church discipline or restoring a marriage; it had happened before. The judge ruled that such testimony would be peripheral to the issues between Cheryl and Sue Welch. Judge Burgess also excluded testimony of Cheryl’s therapist, who would have testified on the effects the public exposure had on Cheryl’s ability to function in her business.
It is significant that every defense witness–other than the paid financial expert–offered a portion of trial testimony that contradicted his or her deposition. Of course, this questions the credibility of a witness’s testimony. Closing arguments by Barbara Duffy, the Plaintiff’s attorney, maintained that in the Christian homeschool industry, “the stark facts about a divorce and an extramarital relationship can be economically devastating. Sue Welch knew that. And with that knowledge she undertook a strategic course of spreading this into the marketplace…she could simply have taken that notice of Gentle Spirit magazine workshops out of her publication, but Sue Welch wanted Cheryl out of the marketplace. She told her that in her letters. And she was successful.”
During his closing arguments, defense counsel Rudy Lachenmeier invoked the name of the 1950’s demagogue Joe McCarthy, and contended “There’s only one conspiracy here…to be a good Christian. And that’s not a violation of the Sherman Act.”
However, as reiterated throughout the trial, Judge Burgess’ opinion were to the contrary. The judge stated, “A claim of good motives, like a claim of ignorance of the law, cannot justify or excuse a violation of federal antitrust laws.”
The jury was charged with considering eight days of complicated and conflicting testimony and determining whether Sue Welch – the only defendant choosing not to settle out of court – was guilty of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act. The judge instructed the jurors that the plaintiff had the burden of proving: there existed an agreement, conspiracy or combination among two or more persons AND that it specifically intended to harm or restrain competition AND that one or more of the defendants’ acts assisted an agreement, conspiracy or combination AND the defendants’ acts did cause injury to competition. The plaintiff had to prove each proposition; if any were not proven, verdict would be for the defendants.
Judge Burgess told the jury that “The law does not define which [trade] restraints are reasonable and which are not. It is for you to decide whether the evidence in this case shows an unreasonable restraint.”
On September 9, 1998, the unanimous jury returned a verdict saying the defendants Welch entered into an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade in violation of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, that damages were caused and determined the damages to Cheryl’s business were in the amount of $445,000. In antitrust actions, awards are automatically trebled, so Cheryl was entitled to receive in excess of 1.3 million dollars from Sue Welch. In addition, she was entitled to recover her attorneys’ fees and costs. Subsequently, Welch and Cheryl settled for an undisclosed amount.
Antitrust suits are ordinary events, but, according to Barbara Duffy, the plaintiff’s attorney, what made the Gentle Spirit case unusual was the use of personal information, particularly obtained through a breach of pastoral confidentiality, for a competitive advantage. The defendants worked in a market where such disclosure of information would likely be devastating.
In May of 1999, for the first time in over four years, Cheryl published Gentle Spirit. The magazine no longer carried its previous reference to “Titus 2” in each issue. Although it was still concerned with simple living, self-reliance, community and homeschooling, the flavor was more accepting of the diversity of humanity and spirituality.
The Gentle Spirit subscriber base never recovered from the damage wreaked by the conspiracy against its publisher. Attempting to trace subscribers and fulfill their subscriptions cost Cheryl and Rick thousands of dollars. Some of those subscribers responded with rage and demanded that publication stop. Yet, the hubbub also sparked the interest of new subscribers. Cheryl and Rick were very hopeful, but not sure the renewed venture would thrive.
The inside cover of the foremost issue of the “new” Gentle Spirit presented a letter from Rick and Cheryl, in which they described some of their beliefs: “all human beings are treasures…one size never fits all in matters of the heart, mind and spirit…we reject violence and coercion on all levels…we also reject the abuse of power…We have changed our minds many times about what it means to ‘live Christianly’…other people should likewise be afforded plenty of room to grow and to change and seek the Lord in their own ways.”
When that issue of Gentle Spirit reached subscribers, the Internet blaze rekindled. The participants discussed every snippet of information revealed, and debated whether the defendants’ actions were justified by scripture, or if they simply broke the law and should publicly apologize. The publisher of Gentle Spirit stayed away from the Internet debates and wondered if she would ever recover from the trauma she endured, which stole her trust and faith in human beings.
Throughout her difficulties Cheryl continued to enjoy the support of many of her former subscribers and a few faithful Christian friends. However, the most help came from unexpected quarters – “liberal Christians” and “worldly” people. Cheryl said,”It is ironic that those whom conservative Christians typically warn against, out of fear they might draw Christians away from the Lord, turned out to be instrumental in my healing. They were often more compassionate and faithful and loving by far than many of the Christians who had cautioned me against associating with such people.”
The original Complaint for Damages was filed in June 1997. In April of 1999, Cheryl settled with the Williamses and Calvary Chapel of Tacoma on the remaining, pending state claims, which brought the litigation to an end.
Although she was wary of further attacks, Cheryl’s life broadened, allowing for “enjoyment of things I had forbidden myself for many years, thinking they were of their very nature off-limits for a Christian–music, books, movies, theater, art, food, a glass of wine…whatever clothes I wanted to wear.”
Now, more than 20 years after these events began, Cheryl’s children are all adults, and so are four of her grandchildren. She is at peace and is proud of the good and satisfying life she has made for herself. Cheryl still occasionally receives orders for back issues of Gentle Spirit magazine and is happy to fulfill them. She remains excommunicated by the homeschoolers on the Religious Right who originally orchestrated her excommunication.
© 1999, 2016 Shay Seaborne. All Rights Reserved.