A lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by a Houston layman active in Southern Baptist Convention politics in the 1970s and 1980s has been moved to federal court.
Second Baptist Church in Houston, the latest party added to the lawsuit centering on “conservative resurgence” co-founder Paul Pressler, demanded the case be removed from the 127th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas, because it involves a matter of federal law.
The church — one of a number of defendants accused of complicity including resurgence co-founder Paige Patterson and the Southern Baptist Convention — says the case requires a court to “review, interpret, consider and make judgment on the appropriateness, correctness and/or validity of the rules, faith, discipline, government and/or doctrine of the Baptist Church.”
That, the congregation argues, is contrary to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The other defendants consented to moving the case to the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Houston.
Daniel Shea, attorney for plaintiff Gareld Duane Rollins, said a “notice of removal” filed by Second Baptist Church March 12 is automatic, meaning as soon as it is filed the state court loses jurisdiction. Shea said he intends to file a motion in the federal court to have the case “remanded” back to the state court, however, where it is tentatively scheduled for trial Dec. 2.
According to the Center for American Progress, more than 90 percent of cases are heard in state courts. These include criminal cases or lawsuits involving state laws, as well as family law issues like marriage or divorce.
Federal courts, on the other hand, can only hear certain kinds of disputes. They include cases involving federal crimes, lawsuits involving citizens of different states and claims involving the U.S. Constitution.
Because the federal courts carry such a heavy caseload, Shea said, the general rule of thumb is, “when in doubt, send it back to the state court.”
Shea said the issue of law before the federal court is the “ecclesiastical abstention,” a First Amendment doctrine that prohibits secular courts from intervening in a case, for example, concerning a minister fired for heresy.
“The court really doesn’t have a competence to engage in decision-making that is the province of the church, and to do so would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment,” Shea said.
At the same time, he said, “You can’t hide behind the First Amendment and say ecclesiastical abstention allows you to go out and murder people.”
“That’s an extreme example, but the point is where is that line drawn?” the attorney explained.
The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention recently unsuccessfully invoked the ecclesiastical abstention argument seeking dismissal of a lawsuit brought forward by a former Baptist state convention executive director claiming job interference.
Will McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, filed a lawsuit in 2017 claiming NAMB officials orchestrated his firing by threatening to withhold $1 million a year in denominational funding as long as he remained in charge.
NAMB sought dismissal on First Amendment grounds, but a federal judge in Mississippi ruled in January that, because McRaney was not employed by NAMB, the “ministerial exception” did not apply and that allegations in the case do not necessarily delve into matters of religious doctrine.
NAMB attorneys sought to put the case on hold pending appeal, but Senior U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson denied the motion and said the case can move forward on Feb. 22.
Shea said he will argue in the Pressler case that “all the causes of action that we have are state causes of actions, and none of them requires that the court engage in theological second-guessing.”
U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt set an initial pretrial and scheduling conference on June 26, but Shea said the judge will likely take up the motion to return the case to the state court jurisdiction before then. Still, Shea said, he expects the development will set the case back by at least a couple of months.
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