The lawyer representing the Missouri Baptist Convention in a dispute over who elects trustees of five state convention agencies described Wednesday’s court ruling against Shorter College “very important to Southern Baptists everywhere.”
The Georgia Court of Appeals court reversed a trial court decision that supported the college, which two years ago removed itself from convention control. College official say they took the step to resolve concerns about accreditation.
The Georgia court focused on the Shorter trustees’ method of dissolving the college’s corporation and starting a new one with the same trustees, and then transferring assets to the new corporation.
The court said it was “not a true dissolution,” but rather a “sham,” and ordered the lower court to consider the convention’s claim that it has provided $26 million to the college.
But the appeals court also found that under Georgia’ non-profit codes, the state convention was a “member” of the college, the equivalent of a shareholder.
A Missouri judge ruled the opposite last week in dismissing the Missouri Baptist Convention’s lawsuit, saying that the convention’s constitution defines messengers, and not churches as the members of the convention.
“The Georgia Baptist Convention is in a very similar legal position as the Missouri Baptist Convention,” said Michael Whitehead, the attorney leading legal action against Missouri Baptist University, The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Word & Way and Windermere Conference Center.
The Missouri convention is claiming the five agencies acted improperly in changing their charters so that the convention no longer had power to elect members to their boards of trustees.
While Georgia cases are not binding on Missouri courts, Whitehead said, “They certainly may be persuasive authority.”
“We are pleased that the decision came in time for us to share with Judge Brown when we file our motion to reconsider in the MBC case next week,” Whitehead said Thursday.
Working against the Missouri convention is legal precedent in cases where the convention argued that two of the colleges it sponsors are separate entities from the convention. In one involving a hayride accident at Southwest Baptist University, the convention avoided liability by successfully arguing that claim.
Robert White, executive director of the Georgia Baptist Convention, hailed the appeals court ruling as “a great decision for the convention and has broad and positive implications for Baptists, other denominations, and nonprofit corporations that have institutions,” according to Baptist Press.
Gary Eubanks, chairman of the Shorter College trustee board and an attorney from Marietta, Ga., told the news journal Baptists Today that college leaders are “disappointed” but plan to take their case to the Georgia Supreme Court.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.