‘Methodist Three’ go free

All charges against three Milwaukeeans, the "Methodist Three," who were part of a six-member religious trip to Cuba, have been dropped, it was confirmed earlier this month. A fourth member of the group remains in legal limbo as a result of the trip, however.

Theron Mills, Dollora Greene-Evans and William Ferguson Jr. — the "Methodist Three" — had been locked in a legal battle with the Treasury Department for nearly six years. The department was demanding that the three pay a collective $22,500 in fines for their trip to Cuba, which the department claimed was illegal.

In May 2003, Art Heitzer, a Milwaukee attorney who provided legal counsel to the Methodist Three, filed counterclaims against the Treasury Department with a judge in Falls Church, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. The counterclaims accused the department of unjustly interfering with religion, contended that its involvement with the trip constituted excessive involvement with religion and that it was racially profiling the Methodist Three, according to Heitzer. The last claim stems from the fact that two members of the Methodist Three, Greene-Evans and Ferguson, are black, and the other three members of the trip who were not prosecuted are white.

After negotiations, the Treasury Department and the Methodist Three's legal team reached an agreement: the Treasury Department would drop the case if the Methodist Three's camp would withdraw their counterclaims.

On Nov. 5, Heitzer received a letter from the judge in Falls Church confirming that the agreement had become an actuality.

"I'm certainly glad that these charges have been dropped," Heitzer said. "They never should have been charged."

Paul Kinsley, a fourth member of the trip, was not exonerated along with the Methodist Three. All four of the trip members received letters from the government demanding information about their trip to Cuba about one-and-a-half years after their trip, but only the Methodist Three members received prepenalty notices, or warnings that the government had reasonable cause to fine each member $7,500, about a year after that, Heitzer said. So far, Kinsley's case has not advanced to the prepenalty notice stage, according to Heitzer.

The Methodist Three were part of a six-member delegation from Central United Methodist Church that visited the Cuban capital of Havana in 1999 to help Central United's sister church, La Trinidad, celebrate its 100th anniversary.

Upon their return to Toronto, from where they planned to fly back to the United States, the Methodist Three were detained by customs officials. The detainment began an almost six-year legal battle pitting the Treasury Department, which accused the Methodist Three of violating travel restrictions by visiting Cuba and of spending money there — which is not permitted — against the Methodist Three's camp, which claimed they were within their rights to visit Cuba as part of a religious mission and that the Treasury Department racially profiled the accused members of the trip.

Political Science professor Michael Fleet said how strictly existing laws pertaining to the U.S.'s relationship with Cuba fluctuate with changing beaurocratic and political pressures.

"There's on ongoing struggle," Fleet said. "In the last year or two it's been much more difficult to get to Cuba." In the past few years, it's been harder for Americans to visit their relatives in Cuba and for students to visit the Caribbean nation for educational purposes, he said.