A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a former Baptist state convention executive claiming job interference by the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board, saying secular courts lack jurisdiction to delve into matters of religious doctrine.
The decision in U.S. District Court in Northern Mississippi reverses an earlier decision by the same court. In January 2018 U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson declined to dismiss a lawsuit filed by former Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware Executive Director Will McRaney based on a legal doctrine called “ecclesiastical abstention.”
Stemming from the First Amendment’s guarantee of separation of church and state, the rule protects religious institutions from employment-related lawsuits. Also known as the church autonomy doctrine, it allows judges to review disputes over church polity and administration but not underlying controversies about religious doctrine.
Upon additional review, Judge Davidson determined April 24 the case would require the court to decide whether McRaney’s 2015 departure from the two-state body also known as the Mid-Atlantic Baptist Network “was for a secular or religious purpose.”
In his lawsuit filed in April 2017, McRaney alleged that NAMB officials orchestrated his firing by threatening to withhold $1 million a year in BCMD funding if McRaney remained in charge. Afterword, McRaney claimed, NAMB personnel tried to get him removed from speaking engagements, hindering his ability to earn income from honoraria and book sales, and posted a defamatory photo of him at NAMB offices.
In 2018 Judge Davidson said the court needed to decide only whether statements made about McRaney were false and if they caused his termination, “neither of which will require the court to delve into any religious practices or matters of internal church governance.”
After considering subsequent arguments by NAMB, however, Davidson said this week the case would require the court to determine whether NAMB “had a valid religious reason” for its actions, something “the court cannot do.”
McRaney said the dismissal was based on procedural matters and not facts of the case, and he intends to appeal the ruling.