Will McRaney’s legal case against the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board will take a dramatic turn this week as a group of state Baptist convention leaders, former NAMB employees and former denominational officials submit an amicus brief alleging NAMB is dangerously misrepresenting Baptist polity.
Randy Adams, executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention, is gathering signatures for the friend of the court brief that will be filed this week in the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in support of McRaney’s claim and against NAMB’s defense that it cannot be held liable for McRaney’s firing as president of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware.
Although the text of the brief is not yet public, Adams said it quotes Baylor University church historian Barry Hankins saying if NAMB’s interpretation of the First Amendment prevails, every Baptist entity that cooperates in any way with the SBC will be put at risk.
NAMB and its attorneys have said the exact opposite, claiming secular courts cannot intervene in ecclesial matters, meaning the inner working of religious bodies.
McRaney contends the so-called Ecclesial Exemption Doctrine does not apply in his case because he was not an employee of NAMB and therefore this is not about NAMB’s internal personnel policies. He contends NAMB and its president, Kevin Ezell, defamed him by demanding leaders of the two-state convention fire McRaney or lose $1 million in funding and by threatening conference leaders in other states not to hire McRaney.
Throughout his seven-year ordeal, McRaney has portrayed Ezell as a vindictive micro-manager who bullies other Baptist leaders and gets his way because he controls tens of millions of dollars in offering money for missions. Ezell denies any wrongdoing, and thus far, his trustees have backed him.
Adams said Sunday, Nov. 5, that “many Baptist pastors, associational leaders and convention leaders have already said they want their name on the brief that will be filed on Tuesday, Nov. 7.” He put out a call for anyone who wants to join the brief to contact him by 4 p.m. Eastern time Monday, Nov. 6.
He said Hankins, the Baylor scholar, wrote in the brief: “It is my opinion as a scholar of church-state relations in the U.S. that NAMB’s First Amendment defense in this case, if accepted by the courts, would actually undermine religious liberty rather than safeguard it.”
On Saturday, Nov. 4, Adams participated in a brief video chat with Bobby Gilstrap, a former state convention leader and missionary who also has been the target of criticism by Ezell. The video was posted on social media with a call to enlist additional signers to the brief.
Adams recalled an earlier faux pas in the McRaney case when the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court saying the SBC worked in a hierarchy like Roman Catholics or United Methodists. In reality, the SBC prides itself on its non-connectional governance, with every church and convention claiming autonomy.
An earlier judge in the case “really got our polity wrong,” Adams told Gilstrap. “But one reason he got the polity wrong, we believe, is because of the method in which NAMB has argued.”
Adams said he was compelled to organize the amicus brief because “so far the amicus briefs that have been filed have been on behalf of NAMB and they have argued incorrectly Baptist polity. … So we feel the record needs to be challenged and the record needs to be set clean and clear as to who Baptists are.”
He added: “We’re going to challenge and set clear the record that Baptist churches, associations and conventions are autonomous and independent, and we have no ruling authority from any outside group, whether it be the North American Mission Board or a seminary or another church across town that happens to affiliate or cooperate with the SBC.”