Bishop Eddie Long built one of the nation's best-known black megachurches by being an outspoken religious leader who campaigned against same-sex marriage. Now he's preparing to break the silence about accusations that he used jewelry, cars and cash to lure three young men into sexual relationships.
Long, a married father of four, has planned a news conference Thursday to speak about the lawsuits filed this week by the three New Birth Missionary Baptist Church members who say that they were coerced into sexual liaisons by the prominent pastor.
The lawsuits say the young men were 17 or 18 years old at the time, enrolled in New Birth's ministry for teen boys.
A lawyer for Long, who writes books on heterosexual relationships and has strong ties to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s family, adamantly denied the allegations.
B.J. Bernstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said she opened her investigation after getting a call from one of the men. The Associated Press normally does not name people who claim they are victims of sexual impropriety, but Bernstein said all three -- Maurice Robinson, 20, and Anthony Flagg, 21, and Jamal Parris, 23 -- have consented to making their identities public.
Bernstein said she didn't trust local authorities to investigate the claims.
"This is a really large church that's incredibly politically powerful," Bernstein said. "There are pictures of this guy with every politician around. With something this important, how can I trust that word didn't get back to the bishop?"
DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown has been a member of New Birth for more than 15 years and sits on the advisory board for Long's Longfellows Youth Academy. He said he would stand by the bishop and bristled at Bernstein's suggestion that local authorities couldn't be trusted.
"I take offense to that," he said. "It does not merit a dignified response."
Their pastor has been silent and so are most at Long's 25,000-strong church. But those who will speak say they are supporting him.
Lance Robertson, who joined New Birth nearly two decades ago and has coached youth basketball there, said Wednesday that members were hurting.
"I support and will stand with my bishop, but right now in the court of public opinion, it does not look good," Robertson said. "This affects too many people. As the bishop goes, New Birth goes. He built New Birth."
Bernstein said that her case hinges on her three clients' testimony and that she doesn't have much physical evidence backing up her complaint. Long sent dozens of e-mails and phone calls to her clients, though they weren't "overly sexual," she said. Bernstein said she plans to subpoena records from Long that will show he traveled with the young men to New York, Las Vegas, New Zealand and elsewhere.
Robertson, the church's youth basketball coach, said he wants to hear Long respond to the accusations.
"The bishop has helped so many people," he said. "It's not uncommon for him to mentor young men and groom them to be productive members of society. The bishop's heart has always been in the right place. But the New Birth family, we're weeping. This is not a good day for New Birth."
Long, who was appointed pastor of New Birth in 1987, presides over an empire that claims athletes, politicians and entertainers as members.
President George W. Bush and three former presidents visited the sprawling New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia for the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Long introduced the speakers and the Rev. Bernice King, the Kings' younger daughter, delivered the eulogy. She is also a pastor there.
Today, New Birth sits on 250 acres and has more than 25,000 members, a $50 million, 10,000-seat cathedral and more than 40 ministries.
Not all of his attention, though, has been positive. The church was among those named in 2007 in a Senate committee's investigation into a half-dozen Christian ministries over their financing.
Long has called for a national ban on same-sex marriage. In 2004, he led a march with Bernice King to her father's Atlanta grave to support a national constitutional amendment to protect marriage "between one man and one woman."
This isn't the first allegation against a religious leader who has crusaded against gay marriage. Ted Haggard left New Life Church of Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2006 after a male prostitute said Haggard paid him for sex. Haggard denied the allegations but later admitted to "sexual immorality" and launched a new church in June 2010.