For the past few months, any story in The New York Times about West Virginia has discussed Don Blankenship or the Supreme Court of Appeals or both. But a story in Monday’s edition focused attention on a lawsuit filed in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County (Charleston), West Virginia by Frank J. Haas against the West Virginia Masonic organization and its top officers. Haas v. Montgomery, Civil Action No. 08-C-1035 (May 30, 2008).
(In the interest of disclosure, I have known Frank for several years and appeared before him in his capacity as a West Virginia administrative law judge.)
The lawsuit alleges that Frank, a former West Virginia Grand Master, was expelled from the Masons as a result of his successful efforts to reform the organization and eliminate practices that were, at best, anachronistic and, at worst, illegal:
During his Masonic career and as Grand Master, Plaintiff Haas supported various progressive reforms in Masonry reflecting the will of the majority of the members of Defendant Grand Lodge which reforms were consistent with and promoted rules and regulations designed to respect and protect the constitutional and other rights of all Masons and prospective Masons. The proposed changes and reforms were not only morally right but were consistent with and designed to bring Masonic laws and attitudes into conformity with the substantial public policy of the State of West Virginia and the United States of America.
Plaintiff Haas’ goal was to make Masonry more tolerant, friendly, decent and accepting of everyone regardless of nationality, race, religion or disability.
During the 2006 Annual Meeting, the members of Defendant Grand Lodge voted approval of various reforms proposed by Plaintiff Haas that were in his opinion designed to make Masonry more tolerant, friendly, decent and accepting of all Masons and prospective Masons. These reforms and proposals were intended to rid Masonry in West Virginia of the Orwellian, repressive, regressive and unconstitutional practices that were and are clearly unconstitutional and against the substantial public policy of this State.
The lawsuit raises questions about membership in a fraternal organization, such as whether a member is entitled to due process if he is to be expelled from the membership, and, if so, what type of due process.
But I think the more important question presented by the action is the public policy aspect: can an organization, even one that is private and fraternal, take punitive action against a member for activities that are intended to rid the organization of illegal or unethical practices? I would hope the answer is no, but that’s what the lawsuit will decide.
For more local coverage of the lawsuit, here are articles that appeared in the The Charleston Gazette and the (Charleston) Daily Mail, as well as some entries from a blog called Freemasons For Dummies (which did not think much of the Times’ article).