The comeback of Henry Lyons, senior pastor of New Salem Baptist Church in Tampa, Fla., fell well short during voting Thursday at the annual convention of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc.
Lyons, who led the convention from 1994 to 1999 before resigning and serving four years in prison for racketeering and grand theft, garnered less than 20 percent of the vote, losing 4,086 to 924 to the convention’s vice president-at-large, Julius Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala.
Lyons sued the convention last week, charging that new bylaws governing the presidential election violate the convention’s constitution. On Wednesday afternoon, District of Columbia Superior Court Judge Jeanette J. Clark denied both of Lyons’ motions that would have delayed the presidential election.
Court documents obtained by EthicsDaily.com reveal the arguments that convention representatives used to argue successfully against Lyons’ attempt to stop the election. Among the documents is an affidavit submitted to the court by Wendell Griffen, the convention’s parliamentarian.
“I oppose the requested relief in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia because the case invites the Court to entangle itself in governance and authority questions that are replete with religious meaning and significance for the Convention,” Griffen wrote.
He added that preventing the election would have created “an unprecedented dilemma for the Convention” and resulted in having a civil court supervise its election. Griffen also faulted the plaintiffs for having “created confusion and division in the faith community.”
In the affidavit, Griffen explained the timeline of how the election procedures were adopted, refuting several of Lyons’ claims about the process. He noted that Lyons was present on various occasions where concerns about the procedures could have been addressed but that Lyons failed to mention any complaints and failed to follow the proper channels for challenging the procedures.
A legal memorandum filed by convention attorneys noted that the plaintiffs could have challenged the election procedures “long before now” but instead “chose to save their challenge until days before the election, choosing a civil court as their forum rather than properly addressing any such complaints within the National Baptist Convention.”
“The simple fact of the matter is that Plaintiffs’ 11th hour attempt to disrupt the National Baptist Convention’s Presidential Election and Annual Convention is an exercise in futility destined for failure,” the memorandum added. “The National Baptist Convention is a religious community to which the protections of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution attach, and those protections deprive this Court of subject matter jurisdiction to hear Plaintiffs’ claims, which claims strike at the very heart of church polity and governance.”
The convention’s memorandum also claimed that the plaintiffs were seeking “to erode the wall of separation between Church and State.”
Although his attempt to prevent the election failed, Lyons’ lawsuit will continue. The next court hearing for the case will be Oct 30. 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.
In his affidavit, Griffen stated, “I spoke by phone today with Rev. King who unequivocally stated he did not authorize the commencement of this or any other litigation against the Convention.”
Some National Baptist pastors had suggested that a Lyons victory in the presidential election could split the 7.5 million member denomination. Additionally, many feared he would once again harm the convention’s reputation. Lyons’ lawsuit might have hurt his already difficult comeback effort.
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.
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’ 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.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com