By Bob Allen
An Arkansas couple suing Southern Baptist Convention officials in federal court claim that secular courts have jurisdiction over the internal workings of a church when it involves property disputes or misuse of its articles of incorporation.
In a legal document filed Dec. 5, Kirk and Susie Tompkins, members of First Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., dispute claims by lawyers for LifeWay Christian Resources and the SBC Executive Committee that a federal magistrate cannot consider legality of LifeWay’s recent sale of Glorieta Conference Center in New Mexico under the free-exercise and establishment clauses in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The couple lost their lease to the lot which contained a vacation home they purchased on Glorieta property in 1993 after it expired when trustees of the SBC publishing house voted to sell the 2,100-acre mountain retreat center near Santa Fe in June.
They challenged the deal in a lawsuit filed Sept. 4 in the U.S. District Court in Albuquerque claiming LifeWay lacks authority to dispose of the property without approval at two SBC annual meetings.
An amended complaint filed Sept. 18 seeks $12.4 million for themselves and about 65 other homeowners they claim were fraudulently led to believe they had perpetually renewing leases put in place as a safeguard to maintain the Christian character of the community.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Hayes Scott issued a temporary stay in the proceedings Nov. 21 pending the outcome of objections by Southern Baptist officials that the court lacks jurisdiction on multiple grounds.
“The Court lacks jurisdiction to overrule a religious organization’s interpretation of its own ecclesiastical rules and regulations,” lawyers representing LifeWay and the SBC Executive Committee said in a court document filed Dec. 5.
They claim the Southern Baptist Convention interpreted its constitution and bylaws to mean that the right to convey Glorieta belonged solely to LifeWay, and the lawsuit is asking the court to overrule that interpretation. The defendants “assert their First Amendment right that prohibits civil courts from interfering with their own interpretation of ecclesiastical rules and their own governance,” according to the document.
Lawyers for LifeWay argue in a separate filing that the lease agreement contained specific language — “This Lease may, at Glorieta’s sole option, be nonrenewable and permanently lapse upon expiration or earlier termination hereof” — which supports their claim. The homeowners further acknowledge “that neither Glorieta nor any agent of Glorieta has made any promise; or commitment whatsoever regarding any continuation or extension of this Lease or issuance of any new Lease subsequent to the expiration or earlier termination hereof.”
The Tompkinses say their dispute involves a “non-religious doctrine” that falls under the court’s jurisdiction.
“A corporation is a creature of the state,” they argue. “It is presumed to be incorporated for the benefit of the public. It receives certain special privileges and franchises and holds them subject to the laws of the state and the limitation of its charter. Its powers are limited by law. It can make no contract not authorized by its charter. Its rights to act as a corporation are only preserved to it so long as it obeys the laws of its creation.”
They say the deed on file at the Santa Fe County courthouse lists the Executive Committee, not LifeWay, as Glorieta’s owner and that a LifeWay vice president committed fraud when he claimed to have legal authority to transfer the property.
As to the lease, they claim an “implied-in-fact contract,” a legal term for a meeting of the minds not in writing but affirmed by non-verbal conduct demonstrating a tacit understanding.
They claim “irreparable harm is ongoing and occurring” to Glorieta homeowners “generally all whom have believed in the rule of law and were protected by the fundamental aspects that ‘if’ two consecutive meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention approved the sale of Glorieta Conference Center they would at the very least be ‘fairly and justly’ compensated with buyouts of at least fair market values by implied contracts and meetings of the minds of all Glorieta Home Buyers and Leaseholders existing for over 50 years.”
“Southern Baptist families, including widows, pastors, retired pastors, missionaries, state convention leaders and many churches have been greatly damaged by this immoral liquidation and fraudulent transfer by special warranty deed,” the Tompkinses contend.
They accuse LifeWay and the Executive Committee of taking “without proper due process and equal protections the hard earned retirement funds of citizens and churches of several states, stolen by lies, mismanagement and greed,” and ask the judge to begin pretrial discovery and disclosure and set a date for a trial.