NEW ORLEANS (BP) — An amicus brief filed Dec. 4 by the Executive Committee supports a recent court decision to dismiss the case of a former state executive director due to the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.
The brief filed with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals further addressed Southern Baptist polity as well as “the right of Southern Baptists and all religious bodies” to remain free of government interference when it comes to “matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.”
Southern Baptist participation and polity were detailed in five categories – cooperating local churches, associations, state conventions, SBC entities and auxiliaries. Entities such as the North American Mission Board, it said, are the only group over which the SBC claims any level of control.
No control over the others represents a “foundational concept” of the SBC since its beginning in 1845, the brief said.
“The hallmark of Southern Baptist polity is cooperation and not control,” it read.
A full meeting of EC members was held Nov. 16 to discuss the amicus brief and the rationale behind it, EC Chair Philip Robertson told Baptist Press.
“In that meeting the trustees voted to authorize the officers to make the final decision to file this amicus brief,” he said. “Trustees received a copy of the final draft and were given ample time to give feedback and input to the officers before the officers met to make the final decision.
“In summary, authorization of the brief was made by the Executive Committee officers with the support of the informed Executive Committee trustees.”
Jonathan Howe, interim EC president and CEO, also spoke to the issues of denominational polity and religious freedom.
“While the SBC Executive Committee is not a party in this case,” he said, “we felt the responsibility to clarify and affirm both the polity arguments laid forth in the case as well as the absolute necessity of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and how it applies to all religious bodies.
“Southern Baptists have a long history of advocating for religious freedom, and it is essential for us to handle matters like church governance and decisions within each autonomous body without the court’s involvement or judgment on matters pertaining to polity and religious decisions within our churches.”
The EC’s amicus brief came days after a response by NAMB to an appeal filed by Will McRaney, who sued NAMB in 2017 with claims that leadership at the entity had undue influence in his 2015 departure from the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware and that subsequent cancellations of speaking engagements inhibited his ability to make an income.
After proceeding through the court system, the case was dismissed in August by a federal judge who cited the First Amendment and the government’s lack of jurisdiction when it comes to church matters. That same judge, Glen Davidson of the U.S. District Court North District of Mississippi, originally dismissed the case in April 2019, but that dismissal was reversed 10 months later.
The EC’s brief stated the importance of “defend[ing] the constitutional position that Southern Baptists are afforded the protections of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”
McRaney and his attorneys disagree with that rationale, calling the August dismissal and reasons behind it “wrong in almost every material aspect” in the November appeal. Another amicus brief filed on Nov. 7 that included signatures of numerous Southern Baptist pastors and leaders in support of McRaney posited that the judge’s decision to dismiss actually endangered religious liberty.
McRaney shared in a now-deleted Facebook video on Oct. 24 that an unnamed state Baptist convention – not its director as an individual – had contributed financially to support his case. BP reached out to the three state convention leaders who signed on to the Nov. 7 amicus brief; all stated their convention was not the one referred to by McRaney.
McRaney’s attorney, Scott Gant, filed a response Dec. 6 disputing areas of the EC amicus brief.
For instance, the EC brief stated that McRaney withheld his consent to that brief’s filing. Gant, in his response, said EC attorneys contacted him about the brief, and he responded with a request for a draft to review prior to McRaney’s considering giving his consent. EC attorneys agreed, Gant said, but never provided a draft prior to filing and never followed up with him.
Gant also asserted that, even though the EC brief said no other parties outside the EC and its counsel have contributed money toward the brief, that NAMB’s finances are “enmeshed” with the SBC and EC through the EC’s recommending the annual operating budget that includes Cooperative Program allocations for SBC entities and is voted on at the annual meeting.