Ten years ago, Henry Lyons resigned as president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. and then spent more than four years in prison for racketeering and grand theft. Now, Lyons wants to be presidentof the largest African-American denomination once again—and is suing to try to make that happen.
Lyons, who led the National Baptist Convention from 1994 to 1999 and is now the senior pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., is set to face off Thursday in a presidential election against the convention’s vice president-at-large, Julius Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala.
However, last week Lyons filed a lawsuit against the convention, charging that new bylaws governing the presidential election violate the convention’s constitution.
Lyons claims in his lawsuit that the new bylaws limit the number of representative members eligible to vote and give some members additional votes if they are designated as representative members by more than one church, association or state convention. He alleges that such changes constitute a breach of contract and urges the court of the District of Columbia to force the convention to follow the voting format that Lyons believes the convention’s constitution mandates.
Joining Lyons as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are the church he pastors and Leonard King, president of the United Missionary Doctors State Convention of Ohio and pastor of Solid Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Irvington, N.J.
“The totality of Defendant’s wrongful conduct in this matter constitutes breach of contract,” claims one of Lyons’s legal filings. “Without the intervention of this Court, Plaintiff’s right to an election process that is required by Defendant’s Constitution will be irreparably taken from Plaintiffs.”
Lyons has asked the court to issue a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction to prevent the convention from holding the presidential election until his lawsuit has been heard. A hearing has been set for Wednesday afternoon to consider these motions.
“Plaintiffs will suffer immediate and irreparable harm if injunctive relief is not granted in this matter,” claims the request for a preliminary injunction. “The election of a new President of Defendant will be irreparably tainted by an improper election.”
Although courts are often hesitant to intervene in intra-denominational disputes, Lyons urges the court to act by arguing in his request for a preliminary injunction that the convention is “not a church, or a hierarchical religious governmental body, but is essentially an advocacy organization of churches.” Thus, his complaint argues that the convention “is not a religious body for the purposes of First Amendment immunity analysis.”
An estimated 40,000 people are expected to attend the National Baptist Convention meeting this week in Memphis, Tenn. Some National Baptist pastors have suggested that a Lyons victory in the presidential election could split the 7.5 million member denomination. Additionally, many fear he would once again harm the convention’s reputation.
David Goatley, president of the North American Baptist Fellowship, of which the National Baptist Convention is a member, said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com that the “process of transparent elections when a sitting president is at the end of tenure is a relatively new phenomenon,” which leaves little precedent for evaluating this “fluid situation.”
“The concern about helping NBCUSA to reimagine itself as a relevant and robust community yields multiple visions and proposals,” added Goatley, who also heads the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention that was started by some National Baptists in 1897. “While this is happening publicly for NBCUSA, it is happening publicly and privately in many denominations.”
The convention’s outgoing president, William J. Shaw, has been widely credited for stabilizing the convention and restoring its credibility in the aftermath of Lyons’s scandals. Shaw, pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, was one of the plenary speakers at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant last year.
Lyons previously served as president of the National Baptist Convention from 1994 to 1999. In 1997, his then-wife set fire to a $700,000 home that he shared with one of his mistresses. The fire sparked an investigation into his finances, which revealed that he used his presidential post to take nearly $4 million from corporations doing business with the convention and stole nearly $250,000 that had been donated to rebuild African-American churches that were burned down.
In addition to being convicted on state charges of racketeering and grand theft, he pled guilty to federal charges of fraud and tax evasion. He spent more than four years in prison and was ordered to pay more than $5 million in restitution. He apparently still owes nearly $140,000.
In 2007, Lyons attempted to regain the presidency of the Florida General Baptist Convention, which is affiliated with the National Baptist Convention. After he lost that election, Lyons and his supporters started a new state convention, the General Baptist State Convention of Florida, of which is he currently the president.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com