By Bob Allen
A homeowner couple who claim they were treated unfairly in a Southern Baptist Convention entity’s decision to unload Glorieta Baptist Conference Center said in a court document Aug. 5 that no religious organization should be allowed to avoid legal scrutiny by hiding behind the separation of church and state.
Kirk and Susie Tompkins, a couple from Little Rock, Ark., who in March lost a lawsuit against SBC publisher LifeWay Christian Resources on procedural grounds, asked the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to grant them a day in court.
The brief argues that “no one is above equity laws of fairness, including church leaders and 501(c)3 corporations of religious organizations cloaking under corporate veils” and First Amendment protection.
An earlier brief by LifeWay argued that U.S. District Court Judge James O. Browning of Albuquerque, N.M., ruled correctly that the couple, owners of one of 65 homes built on lots leased on a year-to-year basis from Glorieta that were voided by the property sale, lacked legal standing to claim LifeWay officials violated SBC policy in disposing of the 2,400-acre retreat center near Santa Fe, N.M., for $1 in 2013.
While the Tomkinses “had a good thing going” in their “bargain” ground lease fee of $1,252 a year, LifeWay claimed, except for the lease they “are complete outsiders” having no say in how agency trustees and SBC messengers manage their internal affairs.
Even if the couple had standing, LifeWay lawyers claimed, they are “barred by the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses to the extent that they ask the federal courts to determine whether LifeWay, a religious organization, has properly interpreted the ecclesiastical rules that govern it.”
The LifeWay brief noted several procedural errors in the Tompkins lawsuit. It claimed an “implied contract” that LifeWay would continue to renew the lease alleged without offering proof, failed to clearly state a claim against individual defendants and “is often unclear and difficult to understand.”
Kirk Tompkins, who is representing the couple without aid from a lawyer, says that as a “pro se” litigant he is entitled to more latitude than someone trained in the legal profession, but as a professional businessman for more than 60 years who has bought and sold several corporations he knows something about irregularities in property deals.
He questions whether signatures on paperwork leading to the deal are legal and notes that in the past denominational entities were dissolved by the vote of messengers at two consecutive SBC annual meetings. LifeWay says Tompkins’ assertion that the transfer required convention approval is based on a misunderstanding of SBC bylaws.
Tompkins insisted that secular courts have the authority to use “neutral principles of legal issues” to adjudicate property disputes “not involving religious doctrine.” As a professing Christian he also appealed to a higher law, James 2:13, to assert “that justice prevails in all matters of disputes.”