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Lawsuit Dismissal More Than ‘Bump,’ Critic Says

Leaders of the Missouri Baptist Convention downplayed last week’s dismissal of its lawsuit as a “bump in the road” on the way to recovering the convention’s right to elect trustees of five “rebellious” entities, which moved a few years ago to self-perpetuating governing boards.

But others say it could be a rather tall, and costly, bump to get over.

“Missouri Baptists need to understand this little ‘bump in the road’ derailed the MBC Law Suit train,” a leading critic of the lawsuit wrote on a Web site which touts itself as presenting “just the facts” about Missouri Baptist life.

Last Thursday a circuit judge in Jefferson City, Mo., threw out the convention’s lawsuit against the agencies that changed their charters in 2000 and 2001 to allow them to elect their own trustees, rather than accept the ones elected by the conservative-controlled state convention.

Circuit Judge Thomas Brown said neither the Missouri Baptist Executive Board nor six churches acting on behalf of the convention in the lawsuit had legal standing to sue, because the state convention’s constitution defines its “members” as messengers elected to the convention.

Convention lawyer Michael Whitehead said in an e-mail that the convention may file a new petition naming certain messengers as its representatives. He said “several options are under review,” all in keeping with instructions that Judge Brown gave all attorneys in the case prior to dismissing the suit.

A legal task force for the convention issued a statement saying it was undeterred by Brown’s ruling, which did not address what the task force sees as the main issue in the case–whether the convention’s legal rights were violated when the agencies changed their charters.

“The judge believes that the Missouri Baptist Convention should be represented in this case by messengers rather than by churches or the Executive Board,” the task force said in a statement ¦. “This may require a mid-course correction, but it does not change our goal. 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. Someone must speak up for their rights, and if the court requires individual messengers, we will give the court individual messengers.”

But re-filing the case with new petitioners would return the convention to square one, leaving lawyers no closer to resolving the dispute than when the original lawsuit was filed 20 months ago. Legal fees for depositions, lawyers and court costs already exceed $1 million, according to what a leading opponent of the lawsuit calls a conservative estimate.

Bart Tichenor, a lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of 2,548 individuals in 149 churches opposing the convention’s suit, said he believes the judge’s finding that the Missouri Baptist Convention exists only two or three days each year at the annual meeting creates a new problem for the convention’s case.

While many churches are unincorporated, Tichenor said, they can produce membership rolls to determine who is legally a “member.” Tichenor said the convention may have a tougher time proving that it has a continuing membership with standing to represent the entity in a legal action.

“A Missouri Baptist becomes a messenger upon being so registered. When the convention adjourns the persons elected as messengers are no longer messengers,” Tichenor wrote in an article on the Web site MissouriBaptists.org. “The MBC does not have a continuing membership. It is only a temporary membership that changes from year to year.”

Tichenor says the lawsuit is wasteful and displays misplaced priorities. “What this says is that it is now more important to pay lawyers than to do state missions or feed the hungry,” he wrote in an earlier article on the Web site.

“The MBC’s rationale is that a million here or a million there to pay legal expenses is a good investment given the MBC’s assertion that the combined assets of the five institutions are in excess of $200 million,” Tichenor said.

Tichenor said that rationale is based on a “false and misleading premise” that trustees of the five institutions have taken $200 million in assets from Missouri Baptists.

“No assets have been taken from any Missouri Baptist,” Tichenor argued. “None of the institutions have closed their doors of service and ministry to any Missouri Baptist.”

All Missouri Baptists continue to have “the full and complete benefit and enjoyment of the ministries” of Missouri Baptist University, The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Word & Way and Windermere Conference Center, he said. In fact, he contended, the convention now has the best of both worlds, since the agencies continue to serve all Missouri Baptist churches even though the convention is no longer paying for them.

Harold Phillips, coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri, said in a statement he hoped dismissal of the convention’s lawsuit would provide all Baptists in the state an opportunity to “catch our breath” and “decide there are better ways to advance the Passion of the Christ than through the courts.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.