JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (ABP) — A Missouri judge has effectively dismissed a lawsuit filed by Missouri Baptist Convention leaders against five institutions that removed themselves from convention control.
Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown ruled March 11 that the suit's plaintiffs lack the proper legal standing to assert their claim against the institutions.
Convention messengers voted in 2002 to sue the five institutions — the Word & Way newspaper, Missouri Baptist University near St. Louis, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Missouri Baptist Foundation and the Baptist Home retirement home system. In 2000 and 2001, trustees of all five agencies changed their institutions' charters to make the boards self-perpetuating.
Previously, the institutions' trustees had been nominated by a MBC committee and elected by messengers to the convention's annual meeting.
However, a campaign by fundamentalist leaders to take over the convention's leadership and nominating committee had reached fruition by 2001. They repeatedly cited their desire to gain control of trustee boards and steer institutions in a more conservative direction.
In addition to political issues, leaders of the breakaway institutions cited liability concerns in making the decision to switch to self-perpetuating boards.
The lawsuit demanded the agencies' trustee boards be returned to convention control. Because the MBC itself is an unincorporated association under Missouri law, convention leaders decided to name the MBC Executive Board and six sympathetic MBC-affiliated churches as the plaintiffs.
But Brown said the convention's constitution and bylaws “are not ambiguous” and “the members of the Missouri Baptist Convention are individuals called 'messengers.'” He said the churches and Executive Board do not count as “members” of the convention under its own governing documents.
Since only legal members of unincorporated associations under Missouri law can sue on the groups' behalf, Brown concluded, the churches and Executive Board lack the right to sue the agencies.
MBC attorneys had argued that the constitution and bylaws are unclear as to what constituted a “member.” But Brown rejected that contention.
Larry Tucker, a Kansas City-based attorney representing the Missouri Baptist Foundation, said the plaintiffs could ask the Missouri Court of Appeals in Kansas City to reconsider Brown's decision. However, Tucker declined to speculate as to whether individual Missouri Baptists who were messengers to a previous convention meeting would have legal standing to file another lawsuit.
By press time for this story, MBC Executive Director David Clippard and Michael Whitehead, attorney for the MBC had not returned phone messages from an ABP reporter requesting comment.
In a phone interview John Hardin, the Missouri Baptist Foundation's in-house attorney, said foundation officials were “happy that the suit is over.”
He added: “We're looking forward to continuing to do the work that the foundation has always done — and will continue to do — for Missouri Baptists.”
Missouri Baptist University President Alton Lacey said school officials were “grateful that this shadow has been lifted somewhat from the university; we've been true to our mission this whole time.
“Now we can devote all of our attention to the education of our students and not spend our resources fighting lawsuits,” he concluded.