A former president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. has lost his lawsuit against the convention, months after overwhelmingly losing his attempt to regain the presidency. The lawsuit was dismissed by a Superior Court of the District of Columbia judge on May 13.
Henry Lyons, who led the NBC from 1994 to 1999 before resigning and serving four years in prison for racketeering and grand theft, ran unsuccessfully for the presidency at September’s NBC annual convention. Julius Scruggs, pastor of First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala. defeated Lyons by a margin of 4,108 to 924.
Lyons had sued the NBC just before the convention’s meeting to delay the presidential election. That lawsuit was dismissed and the election proceeded as planned. Lyons sued again in October, asking the election results be overturned. EthicsDaily.com broke both stories.
Judge Judith Bartnoff dismissed Lyons’ case with prejudice in a bench ruling May 13. Although Lyons could appeal, the ruling ends the case at the trial court level.
Mark Chopko, one of the NBC’s attorneys, said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com that the judge dismissed the case both on First Amendment grounds and on grounds established by the NBC’s governing documents.
“Judge Judith Bartnoff of DC Superior Court agreed with that argument ruling she lacked jurisdiction to hear this case,” said Chopko, who also teaches church-state law at Georgetown University Law Center. “First, she said from the bench the law is clear that a civil court may not become involved in the internal affairs of a church or religious society. But even more significant, second, this particular religious society’s Constitution provides that, under no circumstances, may a faithful member take a membership dispute into the civil courts.”
Danielle Banks, the NBC’s lead council in the case, explained in a phone interview with EthicsDaily.com that the First Amendment issue was significant because the government cannot interfere with the internal governance of a church. She said the judge agreed that the NBC’s president is an “ecclesiastical position” and thus the denomination has the right to decide how that religious leader is selected.
Banks added that in addition to the First Amendment grounds, the NBC’s constitution is “very clear” in the process allowed to resolve complaints about the election process. By suing in civil courts, Lyons was violating the rules he had already agreed upon when he chose to participate in the election.
Banks said she was especially pleased by the ruling since it demonstrated that “the United States Constitution and the Convention’s Constitution are in agreement on this point.”
Lyons previously served as president of the National Baptist Convention from 1994 to 1999. A marital conflict led to an investigation into his finances. 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, of which 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 he is currently the president.
Prior to the recent presidential election, some National Baptist pastors suggested that a Lyons victory could split the 7.5 million member denomination. Additionally, many feared he would once again harm the convention’s reputation.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor to EthicsDaily.com.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.