Mt. Zion sanctuary

The inside of Mt. Zion Baptist Church, photo provided by the Mount Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society.

A preservation group for a historic black church on North Congress Street in Athens won a small victory last week when Judge Michael Ward ruled that a copy-cat Facebook and website page were illegal, and held the pages’ creator in contempt of court.

Representatives of the Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society argued in court that the alleged creator of those pages, Cinseree Johnson, was in violation of a 2017 court ruling prohibiting her from soliciting donations or acting as an agent of a charitable organization in Ohio. Specifically, the group alleged that Johnson was the owner of a website and Facebook page, with a Paypal account soliciting donations, for the Mt. Zion Baptist Church. The Mt. Zion group asked for those pages to be taken down.

Preservation Society lawyer Tom McGuire said Monday that the websites were not helping the society’s efforts to raise a significant amount of money to restore the historic church on the corner of North Congress and West Carpenter streets in Athens. 

“You can’t tell from the Google search page which is which… and it’s just unnecessarily confusing, and (she) doesn’t represent Mt. Zion,” McGuire said.

The Society has raised about $115,000 and put a new roof on the building, and is working toward raising $450,000 to redo the stained-glass windows and fix a lot of other issues inside the building, McGuire said. The group hopes to raise around $1.5 million to bring the church back to its former glory. People can donate by going to the Preservation Society’s (actual) website at http://mountzionathens.org/. The group’s goal is to preserve the building, with hopes to reopen it for religious services and as a meeting space, and use the building to showcase black history in Athens County.

The Mt. Zion Baptist Church Preservation Society was named the legal owner of the building in 2017 after the Ohio Attorney General’s Office successfully sued Johnson and a company she had created to take control over the church, with the AG alleging that Johnson had registered the property under her own dominion without proper authority.

The AG’s Office claimed that through a series of actions, Johnson merged the Mount Zion Baptist Church out of existence in favor of the LLC she had set up, and then improperly made filings with the Ohio Secretary of State claiming rights and privileges to the assets of the church under the LLC of which she was the sole member.

In March 2017, visiting Judge Michael Ward granted default judgment to the AG’s Office against Johnson, whom he had declared a vexatious litigator in Athens County in 2008. Ward ruled that Johnson’s Mount Zion LLC “has been operated without regard for Ohio’s charitable laws,” and directed the Ohio Secretary of State to dissolve the nonprofit limited liability company.

The same judge, Michael Ward, ruled Friday that Johnson was in violation of those previous proceedings, and gave her a week to take down the website and Facebook page (she did not appear in court, McGuire said). She also faces 30 days in jail and a $500 fine, but McGuire said that his group did not want to see her face any jail time.

McGuire said that he was waiting to get a copy of the judge’s ruling this week in order to go to Facebook and GoDaddy (the false website’s host) to request they take down the copy-cat pages.

The building is in part the legacy of Edward C. Berry, the man who built, owned and operated the famed Berry Hotel that once stood on North Court Street where the Court Street Diner is located today, The NEWS previously reported.

In 1905, Berry and wife Mattie, Mount Zion Baptist Church members, donated land at the corner of North Congress and West Carpenter streets near their home to construct the new church. They also provided the funding.

McGuire also provided a copy of records he had received from the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office of an application by somebody listing their name as Cinseree Johnson to file articles of incorporation for the Multicultural Genealogical Center of Southern Ohio in Chesterhill, Ohio in early 2017. The Secretary of State cancelled those articles of incorporation not long after. In that order, he included a copy of the court order enjoining Johnson from acting as a charitable organization’s agent.

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