JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (ABP) — A Missouri judge, who recently dismissed a lawsuit against five Missouri Baptist agencies, won't allow the plaintiffs to amend the suit.
Judge Thomas Brown, who ruled March 11 that the Missouri Baptist Convention Executive Board and six of the convention's churches did not have legal standing to file the original lawsuit, ruled April 7 that the convention officials could not amend the lawsuit to make individual “messengers” the plaintiffs.
Instead, the convention will file a new lawsuit that names messengers — those individuals authorized to participate in the once-a-year Baptist convention — as plaintiffs, according to convention attorney Michael Whitehead. “If the judge won't allow us to amend under one case number … we'll proceed with a case naming messengers,” he said. The pastors of at least five of the plaintiff churches will be named as plaintiffs in the new filing, he added.
Meanwhile, Whitehead said, the convention will appeal Brown's latest ruling, meaning both lawsuits will be in the court system at once. “That's the complexity we were hoping to avoid” by amending the suit, said Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney. He insisted both convention messengers and the Executive Board have a right to represent the annual convention. Clyde Farris, an attorney representing Missouri Baptist University, appealed to the convention to abandon the case. “It is the defendants' hope and desire that those who have brought this suit, instead of spending more money and creating more acrimony trying to get someone else to file a new suit or appealing this decision, will now work with these Baptist institutions for the goals that are in the common interest of Missouri Baptists…,” Farris noted. “Too much time and money has been wasted.”
The Missouri Baptist Convention voted in 2002 to sue five institutions that amended their charters to elect their own trustees and remove themselves from convention control — the Word & Way newspaper, Missouri Baptist University, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Missouri Baptist Foundation and the Baptist Home retirement home system. Previously, the institutions' trustees had been nominated by a convention committee and elected by messengers to the convention's annual meeting.
Because the Missouri Baptist Convention itself is an unincorporated association under Missouri law, convention leaders decided to name the Executive Board and six sympathetic churches as the plaintiffs.
But Brown, in his March ruling, 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.
Convention attorneys had argued that the constitution and bylaws are unclear as to what constitutes a “member.”
In his April 7 ruling, Brown, a Cole County circuit judge, noted that because the Executive Board and six named churches “are not members of the Missouri Baptist Convention, they do not have, and have never had, any legal right to litigate the claims….” Because the plaintiffs do not have standing, the court has no jurisdiction and could not grant permission to amend the lawsuit.
The judge also noted that the Executive Board does not have standing to bring the litigation on the convention's behalf because it “does not have a legally protectable interest” in the case.
The judge also clarified that his March 11 ruling that effectively dismissed the original lawsuit applied to all six agencies, not just Missouri Baptist University, as some presumed.