A former Baptist state convention executive says arguments by insurance company lawyers opposing his wrongful termination lawsuit against the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board place the denomination at risk in future litigation over sexual abuse.
For decades the SBC has avoided liability in criminal and civil actions involving churches or affiliated organizations by claiming they are all autonomous, self-governing organizations. But former Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware Executive Director Will McRaney claims in a new court document that lawyers representing NAMB turn that argument on its head.
“Every attorney out there that’s got half a brain is going to pick up this case and is going to use NAMB’s direct argument in future liability cases against the Southern Baptist Convention,” McRaney warned in a Facebook live video Oct. 16.
In his appeal of a lawsuit dismissed in April, McRaney alleges that NAMB officials orchestrated his 2015 dismissal by threatening to withhold $1 million a year in BCM/D funding after McRaney refused their demand to give the agency based in Georgia 100 percent control over church-planting efforts in the organization also known as the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network.
Should NAMB prevail in its argument that national leaders had an absolute right to act in ways that may have led to his termination, McRaney said, it will be only a matter of time before some lawyer uses it in another court of law to establish connectionalism between, churches, associations, state conventions and the SBC that the denomination’s governing documents claim does not exist.
“Some of these sexual cases that are going on out there, and other things that happen in local churches, have never … got a foothold into the Southern Baptist Convention because it’s a local church matter,” McRaney said in the video. “The local church ordains, they do it all. That is the final authority in Southern Baptist life.”
“But under NAMB’s argument, some organization, some attorney, is going to pick my case up, and they are going to use NAMB’s arguments straight back in the courts against the Southern Baptist Convention,” McRaney predicted. “You just mark my words. It’s going to happen.”
The SBC has long avoided liability for sexual abuse lawsuits by arguing that each church is autonomous and controlled in ways determined by its members. National leaders have appealed to the SBC’s lack of control or authority over the local church in resisting reforms such as establishing a database of known predators or an independent panel to receive, evaluate and share information about abuse allegations.
Meanwhile the SBC — the nation’s largest Protestant body and second-largest faith group in the country behind Roman Catholics — is under intense scrutiny since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News published articles this year documenting hundreds of abuse cases in Southern Baptist churches and organizations over the last 20 years.
At least one case filed in Virginia already argues that the convention’s autonomy argument is a sham to shirk responsibility for sexual abuse, while at the same time requiring churches to adhere to standards on other matters such as homosexuality and the ordination of women.
McRaney said arguments used in NAMB’s first answer to complaints in his appeal would dismantle protections against ascending and descending liability in Southern Baptist life for the next 100 years.
In a reply brief filed Oct. 16 in a federal appeals court in Mississippi, McRaney’s attorney says the Southern Baptist Convention is unique among religious organizations such as the United Methodist Church, Roman Catholics and Presbyterians, which “are all hierarchical in organization, nature, and church polity.”
“Governance in these many denominations is top down,” says the brief prepared by William Harvey Barton II, an attorney in Pascagoula, Mississippi. “The SBC is none of these. The only place in the Southern Baptist Convention where authority resides is in the local church.”
By claiming immunity because the First Amendment prevents secular courts from intervening in internal matters of an ecclesiastical body such as a church, McRaney’s lawyer says, NAMB wants the court “to treat the SBC as though it is the same as the many top-down hierarchical religious organizations found in the United States.”
“The SBC is none of these,” the brief says. “The only place in the Southern Baptist Convention where authority resides is in the local church. In other words, the local associations, the state conventions, the entities of the SBC — such as the North American Mission Board — have no authority over the local church.”
Barton says that by invoking legal doctrines such as “ecclesiastical abstention” and the “ministerial exception” to claim immunity from civil liability, the SBC entity “wants this court to treat NAMB as a church entity with a hierarchical relationship with the Maryland/Delaware state convention which necessitates that the Maryland/Delaware state convention is also a church in a hierarchical relationship with NAMB.”
McRaney accused a team of lawyers representing NAMB of making “dangerous, false arguments before the federal courts that are in direct opposition to the SBC Constitution and Bylaws,” in ways that put all denominational assets at risk.