News Articles

Federal judge dismisses McRaney case against NAMB, cites First Amendment

EDITOR’S NOTE: Reaction comments from Will McRaney were received and added to this story on Aug. 17.

OXFORD, Miss. (BP) — Senior U.S. District Judge Glen H. Davidson granted a summary judgment for the North American Mission Board Aug. 15 dismissing a suit by Will McRaney.

McRaney, former state executive of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCMD), charged that defaming statements made by NAMB leaders influenced his 2015 termination from BCMD.

NAMB’s motion for dismissal was granted “for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.”

“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,” read Davidson’s memorandum.

The U.S. District Court in Northern Mississippi’s dismissal hinged on the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which is “rooted in the First Amendment’s free exercise clause” and basically states that courts cannot get involved if a claim revolves around ecclesiastical questions.

“We welcome the news today from the U.S. District Court in Mississippi, ruling in NAMB’s favor in the lawsuit that has been ongoing since 2017,” NAMB told Baptist Press in an emailed statement.

In written comments to Baptist Press, McRaney said, “It is my view that the judge’s ruling is built around the erroneous concept of “THE” Baptist Church as a denomination like the Catholic or Methodist Church, however, the First Amendment clearly declares that the government cannot create or establish a religion.  Unless this court’s ruling is challenged, the SBC, Baptist ministers, along with Baptist autonomy, cooperation, financial health, and missionaries will be under threat of loss and a form of hierarchy created.”

The suit, originally filed in 2017, was dismissed in April 2019 when Davidson ruled the court could not consider McRaney’s claims because of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which prevents the government from interfering in church or religious matters.

The dismissal was reversed in July 2020 by 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. NAMB fought the reversal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court but the high court sent the case back to Davidson’s court.

“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,” NAMB said statement.

Davidson said the strategic agreement partnership between NAMB and the BCMD weighed heavily in his decision.

Saying the agreement is “steeped in religious doctrine”, the memorandum called McRaney’s role with BCMD “a position which by its very terms invokes the Church’s religious mission.”

It said McRaney “clearly served in a ministerial role and in which he had a primary role in conveying the Baptist Church’s message and carrying out its religious mission.”

Any ruling into the reasons for the BCMD to terminate McRaney, it continued, “would be a clear violation of the First Amendment and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”

The court furthermore ruled that the case should be dismissed rather than remanded to the state court, once again citing the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine as the reason that the court would also be compelled to dismiss.

McRaney said he and his wife are weighing their next steps.

“We have 30 days to decide to appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit. The litigating cost and risks to Baptists are high, but the cost to Baptists by doing nothing will be higher.  We covet your prayers,” said McRaney. 

“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,” NAMB statement said.