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Judge Dismisses Missouri Baptist Lawsuit (updated)

A judge on Thursday dismissed cases against five Missouri Baptist Convention agencies sued two years ago for moving to self-perpetuating boards of trustees.

Judge Thomas Brown of Missouri’s 19th Judicial Circuit Court in Jefferson City ruled that the state convention and six churches acting on its behalf had no standing to file the lawsuit claiming the agencies acted illegally in amending their charters without convention approval. 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 Brown said the Missouri Baptist Convention constitution is “unambiguous” 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.

The lawsuit, filed in August 2002, has to date cost more than $1 million in legal fees. Last fall messengers to the convention authorized the executive board to borrow up to $1 million more for ongoing legal 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.

The convention could appeal the ruling, or it could seek to re-file the lawsuit naming convention messengers as plaintiffs. EthicsDaily.com left phone messages for Mike Whitehead, lead attorney for the convention, inquiring about what steps the convention might take.

H.K. Neely, executive of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, said the 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. “Not it is time to get this troublesome matter behind us.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.