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Missouri Baptist Conflict Complicated by Judicial Ties, Changes

As the Missouri Baptist Convention’s lawsuit against five Missouri Baptist ministries neared its fifth anniversary, judicial changes occurred that could impact the outcome of the legal conflict. Two appeals court judges who had ties to the MBC and overturned the 2004 dismissal of the MBC’s lawsuit left the bench this summer.

On Aug. 13, 2002, the MBC filed a lawsuit against Missouri Baptist College (now University), Missouri Baptist Foundation, The Baptist Home, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, and Word&Way. Five years later, the lawsuit continues in the pre-trial stages.

In March of 2004, Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown dismissed the case, arguing that the MBC did not have proper standing to bring the case. However, the Missouri Court of Appeals for the Western District reversed Brown’s decision in May of 2005, thus sending the case back to the circuit court level.

Regardless of the outcome of the current litigation, the case will likely be appealed again. However, the MBC may not find as friendly of a ruling as two of the three judges who overturned Brown’s dismissal ”including the one who wrote the decision ”left the bench during the summer of 2007. Both of these judges had potential conflicts of interest due to ties with the MBC.

Judge Edwin Smith, one of the appeals court judges who ruled on the MBC’s case, left the bench in July to join the law firm of Shughart, Thomson, & Kilroy, P.C. in St. Joseph. According to his appeals court biography, Smith attends Green Valley Baptist Church, which is affiliated with the Missouri and Southern Baptist Conventions.

Additionally, Pam Mason, the wife of the church’s pastor, has served as the MBC’s second vice president and on the MBC’s Legal Task Force, which is the committee that instigated and oversees the lawsuit.

Judge Robert G. Ulrich, another appeals court judge who ruled on the MBC case, left the bench on Aug. 1 to teach law at Liberty University. Ulrich has been the chairman of the board of trustees for First Family Church in Overland Park, Kansas, which is affiliated with the SBC.

Ulrich is also on the board of regents for Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and has taken classes there. Not only is Midwestern funded by the SBC, but beginning in 2004 the MBC began providing direct support to Midwestern. Additionally, the MBC’s lead attorney, Michael Whitehead, formerly worked as vice president and acting president of Midwestern.

In addition to the appeals court changes, the circuit court judge in the case has also changed during the past year. In November of 2006, Judge Brown, who had presided over the case since 2002, was defeated for reelection. Following his defeat, the case was eventually assigned to Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan.

After more than five years since the lawsuit was filed, the first trial may soon begin. In May of 2007, the claims against the five ministries were separated and Windermere was chosen as the first to go to trial. Unless various motions and hearings delay the trial, the case is expected to be heard in late October of 2007. It has been estimated that the trial could end by Oct. 31, which is the last day of the MBC’s 2007 annual meeting.

In November of 2006, the MBC filed a second lawsuit against Windermere, several financial institutions, and some individuals over the loan restructuring and land transaction that occurred since Windermere’s board became independent. This lawsuit was filed in Camden County where Windermere is located.

After the filing of the 2002 lawsuit, MBC leaders countered charges that the action violated the Bible by claiming that 1 Corinthians 6 only condemned lawsuits against individuals and not those against corporations. However, the second lawsuit names individuals in addition to corporations.

During the legal controversy, some SBC entities have sided with the MBC. During the 2004 MBC annual meeting, it was reported that Randy Singer, a legal consultant for the North American Mission Board, would consult with the MBC about the case. Bob Reccord, then-president of NAMB, offered Singer as a consultant for the MBC’s legal team.

In April of 2005, LifeWay Christian Resources rescinded the invitation for three of the institutions ”The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, and Windermere Baptist Conference Center ”to exhibit at its national Senior Adult Conference. The three organizations had already sent in registration forms and deposits after receiving invitations from LifeWay to exhibit, and had already spent money creating special brochures or paying for travel for individuals to be present at the event.

LifeWay notified the three ministries just ten days before the event and cited the MBC’s lawsuit as the reason. Although the action appeared to side with the MBC, Rob Philips, LifeWay’s director of corporate communications, claimed that the action was taken so that LifeWay would not take sides in the lawsuit.

LifeWay also cancelled Centri-Kid and CentriFuge camps that were to be held at Windermere. Citing the lawsuit, Midwestern removed its funds from the Missouri Baptist Foundation and reinvested in the Baptist Foundation of Oklahoma.

Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.