God works in mysterious ways, it's said, but his path to state lawmakers in Sacramento has taken a particularly odd route through a North Carolina courtroom.
A bitter split three years ago in an evangelical group providing Bible studies at California's Capitol has sparked an East Coast lawsuit. Two groups Capitol Ministries and Capitol Commission are rivals for the chance to bring Christian teachings to legislators at capitols nationwide.
Each nonprofit group blames the other for backstabbing and deceit in the effort to touch lawmakers' hearts through ministries funded by millions of dollars from Christians and sympathetic churches, foundations and businesses.
Charges of other ungodly behavior abound, including misappropriation, cyber-squatting, unfair business practices and theft of thousands of emails.
Leaders of the two evangelical groups, Ralph Drollinger and Jim Young, respectively, say the battle has tainted a long friendship between them and violates a biblical admonition in Corinthians to settle disputes outside court.
"It's a heartbreaking thing," said Young, whose Capitol Commission is based in North Carolina.
"I recruited and trained all of them," Drollinger said of former aides now working for Young. "I personally placed all of them in their capitol. So it was very disheartening, the events that occurred."
The two sides disagree over who caused the fight, which Young said had nothing to do with Drollinger's penchant for ruffling Capitol feathers while working in Sacramento from 1996 to 2009.
Known by sports fans for playing briefly in the National Basketball Association, Drollinger drew attention by suggesting years ago that Catholicism was a false religion, for example. He called it sinful for female lawmakers to leave their kids home four days a week to work in Sacramento.
Court documents trace the legal dispute to 2008, when Young alleges that Drollinger began exhibiting "aggressive behavior and mistreated his staff." When aides asked him "to work through their concerns," he forced them to leave, Young said.
Mass exodus of staff caught the attention of Grace Community Church, Drollinger's parent church, whose elders investigated and ruled unanimously that Drollinger no longer was fit to serve in Christian ministry leadership. Sixteen of Capitol Ministries' 19 state directors then asked him to step down, Young said.
Drollinger balked, responding that he interpreted their request as their resignation, Young said. The 16 dissidents and one other state director then formed Capitol Commission, which claims Drollinger's group used its name and bought similar website domains to deceive consumers and to profit by directing them to its own website.
Young's lawsuit seeks an order that Drollinger's group stop cyber-squatting and engaging in unfair competition.
Drollinger's court documents tell a different story.
Capitol Ministries had grown quickly since 1996 but was hurt by global recession in 2009, prompting disagreement between him and key aides at the group's Sacramento headquarters over day-to-day management, finances, structure and strategic plans, Drollinger said.
Two members of Drollinger's governing board, contacted by a dissident aide, began plotting his overthrow. They told a male staff member to intercept emails and he did, collecting 2,600 emails of Drollinger or his wife, who was an administrator, court documents contend.
Using information gained illicitly, the dissidents persuaded state directors and Grace Community Church to turn against Drollinger, the documents allege. They say church trustees were given "sensitive communications," including one suggesting that he might transfer to a different church.
Those state directors then formed Capitol Commission, which Drollinger says kept them in the same jobs at the same pay. The group chose a name and logo similar to that of Capitol Ministries, and used the latter's donor lists, he claims.
Drollinger's group seeks monetary damages on charges ranging from illegal interception of emails to misappropriation of trade secrets and interference with donors.
Recent mediation failed to settle the federal court suit filed last year.
Drollinger's goal, since launching the movement 16 years ago, has been to expand into all 50 state capitols and worldwide in keeping with a gospel message to "make disciples of all nations."
"The Religious Right movement back in the '70s really didn't amount to much, so there are a lot of Christians with resources who are saying we need to do something a little different from that," Drollinger said. "Rather than trying to affect votes, how can we affect hearts?"
The effort has drawn significant financial backing. Bankrolled by private donations, including some solicited by state lawmakers, Capitol Ministries saw its revenue soar from $155,400 in 1997 to $2.2 million in 2008, allowing expansion into 19 state capitols.
Though Capitol Ministries' revenue dropped by more than 75 percent after the split, to $496,333 in 2010, the group continues to serve five states and Washington, D.C., and has ambitious expansion plans.
Young's Capitol Commission, which now ministers in most state capitols previously served by Drollinger, reported revenues of $1.14 million in 2010, its first full year of operation. Totals have risen significantly since then, Young said.
Laura Olson, a Clemson University professor who specializes in religion and politics, said the goal of touching lawmakers' hearts to benefit public policy can be a magnet for donations.
"A certain group of people are going to say, 'Wow, maybe this is an opportunity to help' from their perspective, to move the dial ever so slightly on what they see as problematic secularization of society," Olson said.
One longtime donor, Ron Kolar, who has served on Drollinger's board of directors, said his support is meant "strictly to share the promises of God with people."
Do lawmakers need Bible study? "Of course," Kolar said. "We all need it."
Bible studies continue at California's Capitol, though the sessions are in hiatus until the Legislature reconvenes in January. They are conducted by Pastor Frank Erb, who said that about 25 lawmakers have attended at least one session during the past two years.
Erb moved from Drollinger's group to Young's rival organization when the latter took over serving California lawmakers in 2009.
"Though we are not focused on politics or legislation, we can rest assured that moral lawmakers will make moral laws, and so we expect our entire state and nation to benefit as this ministry grows," he said.