CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former grand master of the West Virginia branch of the Masons said Thursday in Kanawha Circuit Court that any allegation or insinuation of racism within the organization is "ridiculous."
"[That suggestion] makes me feel disgusted," said Charles F. Coleman II, who served as grand master of the state's Grand Lodge between October 2006 and October 2007.
Coleman and his immediate successor, Charlie L. Montgomery, were sued in 2008 by Frank J. Haas, a former grand master from Wellsburg, who alleged that they defamed him and violated Masonic due process by summarily expelling him from the fraternal organization.
Haas maintained that immediately upon taking office, Coleman repealed the progressive reforms Haas had enacted, which were intended to make West Virginia Masonry more inclusive in terms of race, religion, age and disabilities. Eventually, some Masons began criticizing Coleman and Montgomery on an online message board called Masonic Crusade.
Coleman, a union representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers from Teays Valley, testified that as Grand Master, he issued an edict setting aside the vote approving Haas' agenda not because he was unhappy with the reforms, but because he witnessed irregularities during the vote, which made it constitutionally invalid.
At one point, a Mason approached the ballot box holding five ballots, held up five fingers, and deposited the votes into the ballot box, he said.
Coleman assumed that the member meant to convey that he was voting on behalf of five Masons, which is not allowed, he said.
"It constitutes improper voting, and destroys the secrecy of the ballot, and its accuracy, of course," he said.
Coleman said he raised the issue with Haas, who decided to proceed with the vote, which was part of the annual communication that marked the end of Haas' yearlong tenure as grand master. When the vote resulted in a tie, Haas cast a tie-breaking vote, and the reforms passed.
Coleman said that as grand master, he was required to set aside a vote that he knew was improper. Because of the ensuing confusion about what had transpired at the annual communication, he sent a letter to all West Virginia lodges the following month intended to clarify lingering issues.
One of those issues was a lodge master's ability to exclude visitors at his discretion. Haas, unhappy with the treatment of a black member of a group recognized and accepted by the Masons who was denied entrance to a Masonic meeting in Moundsville, had reminded Masons that nationality, race or religion was not a justifiable reason to keep someone out.
Haas' attorneys have tried to portray Coleman's letter as using coded language to emphasize that lodge masters, in the interest of the "peace and harmony" of the lodge, could exclude anyone they pleased.
Coleman disputed that interpretation of his letter, insisting that he only meant to remind Masons of the existing policy, which, as Haas had correctly stated, prohibited masters from excluding visitors based on race.
Toward the end of Coleman's term, a group of Masons began to engage in what he termed "subversive activity" by questioning, first via e-mail and then on the Masonic Crusade website, why Haas' reforms had been set aside and no revote scheduled.
Masonic law forbids politicking, or trying to control or influence the outcome of the Grand Lodge's annual votes, he said.
When Masonic documents began appearing on the renegade website, he and Montgomery, who was poised to replace him, took actions to figure out who the ringleaders were, he said.