After years of wrangling, a United States District Court on Aug. 15 dismissed Will McRaney’s lawsuit against the Southern Baptist Convention North American Mission Board, claiming lack of subject matter jurisdiction.
That means, in short, the court believes McRaney’s claims fall under the Ecclesial Exemption Doctrine, a legal philosophy based on the First Amendment that says civil courts may not adjudicate on internal church matters.
McRaney, who was fired as executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware in 2016, argued that court doctrine does not apply because he was not an employee of NAMB — therefore the pressure NAMB leadership reportedly exerted on the BCMD to remove him was a matter of defamation, not an internal church governance issue.
All along, this case has challenged Southern Baptist officials, who sometimes have been put in the awkward position of arguing there is a connectional structure between the national missions agency and the state convention — even though historic Baptist belief asserts all entities are autonomous, unlike Methodists or Catholics who embrace connectional forms of governance.
McRaney said because of the Baptist doctrine of autonomy NAMB leadership should have had no influence over the state convention, yet it did through the alleged threat to withhold a million dollars in funding if McRaney were not fired.
Indeed, the facts of the case show after McRaney’s termination, the BCMD installed as his successor someone approved by NAMB leadership and who would do for NAMB the things McRaney would not.
Tied up in all this is the alleged heavy-handed leadership of NAMB President Kevin Ezell, who McRaney and other critics describe as a micromanaging autocrat who uses money to buy favors throughout the SBC.
Before the case was dismissed, both sides completed the discovery process, producing volumes of affidavits and recordings. Several of those appear to offer damning evidence of McRaney’s claims about the way NAMB operates. However, none of that evidence will now be heard by a jury as McRaney hoped.
The judge’s order dismissing the case does not make any judgment about whether Ezell and NAMB did what McRaney alleges.
The judge’s order dismissing the case does not make any judgment about whether Ezell and NAMB did what McRaney alleges. The dismissal is based solely on the judge’s opinion that sorting through these claims would involve the court in internal church workings.
“Considering all the facts in the record, the court finds that it cannot adjudicate the plaintiff’s claims in this case without impermissibly delving into church matters in violation of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine,” wrote Judge Glen Davidson.
He added: “The court finds that because the nature of the plaintiff’s claims unavoidably require inquiring into BCMD’s internal policies, procedures, and decisionmaking, in order to determine if NAMB influenced BCMD’s decision, the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is squarely and obviously invoked, and the court cannot proceed to inquire into such matters and adjudicate the plaintiff’s claims. As the Fifth Circuit has already held in this matter, in order to determine whether the Defendant NAMB unlawfully interfered with the plaintiff’s contract with BCMD, the court must inquire into the reasons that BCMD decided to terminate the plaintiff’s employment. Making such a ruling would be a clear violation of the First Amendment and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. It is indeed a quintessential example of an internal management decision that is left under the Constitution entirely to the discretion of the Church.”
This ruling strengthens Ezell’s hand in an ongoing battle with leaders of other state Baptist conventions, who charge Ezell has diverted millions of dollars in former partnership money from them to his own control for a nationwide church-planting strategy that is producing worse results, not better.
NAMB officials issued a statement Aug. 15: “Since the outset, NAMB has consistently held that the accusations against our ministry are unfounded. We have also argued that, as Christian ministries, NAMB and others involved in this case should be protected by the First Amendment and should not be forced to endure scrutiny and intrusive examination from the courts. Our goal throughout this process has been to practice restraint in our public comments and to honor Christ in our actions. We continue to pray the best for the plaintiff and his ministry.”
BNG reached out to McRaney for comment and has not yet received a response.