Leading NYC Black church sued, gender bias alleged in search for new pastor

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By Dan Sears

The Abyssinian Baptist Church, one of the nation’s most prominent Black churches and a New York City institution for over 200 years, is being sued for alleged gender discrimination in the selection of a new senior pastor.

Eboni Marshall Turman — the youngest woman named assistant minister of the church and an assistant professor at Yale Divinity School — alleges in a federal lawsuit she was unlawfully passed over to lead the church because of her gender.

She was the only woman to advance to a third round of interviews to succeed the Rev. Dr. Calvin O. Butts III, who died in 2022 at the age of 73, her lawsuit claims. She was cut before the pool narrowed to five finalists.

Leaders of Abyssinian Baptist Church, founded in 1808 and located at 132 W. 138th Street in Harlem, did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the search or the lawsuit, which was reported earlier by the Associated Press and the New York Post.

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Abyssinian claims to be the first African American Baptist church in New York state, formed by a group of Black residents who refused to accept segregated seating at the First Baptist Church of New York City. The church is named for Abyssinia, an ancient region and empire in modern-day Ethiopia, and has one of the city’s largest congregations.

Butts was a towering religious and political figure in the city, who fought against police brutality and helped channel over $1 billion into housing and commercial projects in Harlem through the church’s separate nonprofit, the Abyssinian Development Corporation.

Marshall Turman claims members of the search committee refused to further consider her because she is a woman. One member said Abyssinian would only hire a woman as its senior pastor “over my dead body,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed Dec. 29.

The complaint alleges that Butts himself called Marshall Turman “the smartest minister” and “best minister” he had ever had. Butts also told her, Marshall Turman alleges, that she would never be the senior pastor because the church would never hire a woman for the position, according to the complaint.

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Several search committee members told Marshall Turman she was the strongest candidate, the lawsuit says. And several members allegedly told her husband, Rossie Turman III, that the decision to cut her from the finalist round was motivated by gender discrimination.

The lawsuit — which cites city and state human rights law — also names the selection committee chair, Valerie S. Grant, who it claims “inappropriately” asked Marshall Turman questions not posed to male applicants.

The complaint requests that Marshall Turman be installed as the church’s senior pastor. Among other relief, it also requests back pay, attorney fees, and damages for “shame, humiliation, embarrassment, and mental distress.” It also asks the court to issue an injunction against any further gender discrimination in the church’s hiring.

Marshall Turman posted on Facebook about her rejection in September, railing against what she called an effort to “systematically eliminate all female applicants from the pool of candidates.”

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“Gender bias has no place in God’s house,” she wrote.

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