Missouri Baptist Convention representatives said Friday afternoon they would continue a legal battle against five convention entities named in a lawsuit thrown out of court on a technicality.
A judge ruled Thursday that six churches representing the state convention in the lawsuit lacked legal standing, because messengers, and not churches, are the members of the convention.
On Friday, a legal task force appointed in 2001 by then-MBC president Bob Curtis issued a statement saying Missouri Baptist leaders considered the ruling a procedural “bump in the road” and not a “road block.”
“We remain committed to the goal of justice for over 600,000 Missouri Baptists in over 2,000 local churches who have given millions of dollars to build these institutions,” the statement said.
The task force said it would propose “an amended petition” naming individual messengers as plaintiffs in the case. “The judge has only ruled on the question of who may assert the convention’s right,” the statement said. “The judge has not denied that the convention has rights.”
The legal task force referred questions about the statement to Mike Whitehead, the MBC’s attorney. Whitehead did not return calls to EthicsDaily.com.
The state convention sued the agencies two years ago in an attempt to regain the right to elect their various boards of trustees. The suit claimed the agencies exceeded their authority when they amended their charters to move to self-perpetuating boards, without the convention’s permission.
In dismissing the case on Thursday Judge Thomas Brown of the 19th Judicial Circuit Court in Jefferson City, Mo., said that the state convention and six churches acting on its behalf had no standing to file the lawsuit. The judge agreed with lawyers representing the agencies that messengers, and not churches, comprise the convention.
The Missouri Baptist Convention is unincorporated. Under Missouri law, Brown said, unincorporated associations may not sue in their own name, but their members can bring action on their behalf. But the judge said the Missouri Baptist Convention constitution is “not ambiguous” that messengers elected by affiliated churches, and not the churches themselves, are the members of the convention.
Since the plaintiffs are not members of the Missouri Baptist Convention, they “do not have standing to bring this suit,” Brown ruled. Further, he found the state convention’s Executive Board also does not have a right to sue, because it has no “legally protectable interest in this litigation.”
The ruling followed a Feb. 26 hearing on a motion by Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, one of the defendants, to have the case thrown out. “A shadow has finally been lifted from the university,” President Alton Lacey said in a press release.
The other agencies named in the lawsuit were The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Word & Way and Windermere Conference Center. Despite their conflict with the convention leadership, the agencies all claim to be continuing to minister to the state’s churches as they always have.
Bill Webb, editor of Word & Way, said Friday that he was “somewhat relieved” at not having the lawsuit hanging over his head for now. “This has been a distraction from what we normally do and what we want to be engaged in, our mission,” he told EthicsDaily.com.
In addition to defending themselves in court, the five agencies lost a combined $1.8 million in funding from the state convention and since 2002 have not been allowed to have exhibits at the state convention or be included in the convention’s annual book of reports.
Just over a year ago, Word & Way had to vacate its office at the Baptist Building in Jefferson City after the convention terminated the newspaper’s occupancy effective March 1, 2003.
The convention has spent more than $1 million on the lawsuit, filed in August 2002. Last fall messengers to the convention authorized the executive board to borrow up to $1 million more for future costs.
The lawsuit sought to return control over election of trustees to the state convention. Trustees of the university, newspaper, conference center and foundation all moved to self-perpetuating trustee boards in 2001 to shelter them from convention politics and ascending liability concerns. The Baptist Home took the step the year before.
H.K. Neely, executive of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, said Friday that Judge Brown’s judge’s ruling “showed more wisdom than many recent Baptists in understanding historic Baptist principles and practice.”
The BGCM, which two years ago separated from the Missouri Baptist Convention to leave behind infighting between moderates and conservatives, has not been directly involved in the lawsuit issue, said Neely. As a former teacher of Baptist history, however, Neely said in a statement on the group’s Web site, “I must applaud Judge Brown for doing his homework and understanding who Baptists are.”
“The decision has been made,” Neely said. “Now it is time to get this troublesome matter behind us.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.