A Missouri businessman is seeking $10 million in damages from leaders of the state’s Southern Baptists, money he claims he lost because of efforts by the Missouri Baptist Convention to block him from developing property he legally purchased in 2006.

William Jester bought 943 acres adjacent to Windermere Baptist Conference Center at Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri from a bank that took over the real estate in a restructuring of the encampment’s debt.

Missouri Baptist leaders sued Jester to stop him from developing or selling the land as part of broader legal action that began in 2002 against five former MBC agencies that changed their corporate charters to remove themselves from convention control.

On March 4 a judge granted summary judgment in favor of Windermere, ruling the Baptist convention surrendered its right to elect the camp’s board of trustees when it incorporated Windermere as a separate non-profit entity in 2000. Convention leaders said they intend to appeal.

In a countersuit March 25, however, Jester alleged “intentional interference” by Baptists with contracts and business plans cost him $10 million in profits. He also sought punitive damages for “malicious and outrageous conduct.”

Along with legal action, which prohibited him from obtaining financing and beginning construction on the land, Jester said representatives of the state convention allowed derogatory comments about his business to appear in its official news journal and gave false information to prospective lenders warning them not to loan money for the project.

The Pathway reported in 2006 that Jester’s company had ties to former state Executive Director Jim Hill, who reportedly put himself on Windermere’s board of trustees at the time of the breakaway before resigning to lead the rival Baptist General Convention of Missouri. The MBC’s attorney called it “conflict of interest.” An editorial called it a “bogus deal.”

Word & Way, the former state convention newspaper and one of the former MBC agencies being sued, reported that Hill had indeed purchased a company from Jester with a name similar to the firm that bought the Windermere land, but the two businesses had no legal or financial ties.

Jester, whose past support for Missouri Baptist work includes a $1 million gift to Southwest Baptist University, plans to develop the land in ways that would enhance the conference center’s ministry.

Windermere alleged in a press release in January 2006 that Missouri Baptist Convention leaders sought to undermine its ministry by dissuading speakers and organizations from attending, interfering with banking and construction and spreading false rumors.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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