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Judge allows discovery to proceed in Mo. entities case

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–A Missouri circuit judge April 5 directed that limited discovery could proceed in one of the two cases brought by the Missouri Baptist Convention against five breakaway MBC entities, while the initial case is pending in the Missouri Court of Appeals.

Judge Richard G. Callahan of the Cole County Circuit Court granted none of the six motions filed by attorneys representing five breakaway MBC entities, including motions that sought to dismiss the legal action brought by the convention in its effort to reclaim the entities.

Judge Richard G. Callahan conducted a hearing with attorneys for all parties to discuss the five-inch stack of motions and memoranda that were before the court. The judge said he was inclined to wait for a ruling on the other case scheduled for oral argument on April 20 before the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District, in Kansas City. One of the issues in that appeal is whether churches can represent the convention in court or whether only messengers can do so. Callahan expressed reluctance to rule on that issue in the case pending before his court and thus risk being contradicted by the court of appeals.

Callahan was willing, however, to permit limited discovery to proceed in the case as requested by MBC lead attorney Michael Whitehead. He also directed the five entities to file an answer in the case.

In addition, Callahan set a June 1 hearing date on a motion regarding a key statute that both parties agree needs to be interpreted. The five entities claim that R.S. Mo 355.141 means that only the attorney general can bring this lawsuit and that neither MBC messengers nor churches have standing to be plaintiffs.

The hearing in Cole County was the latest in a legal battle of more than two years between the MBC and five of its entities where trustees voted to become self-perpetuating without MBC approval. The five entities, with assets worth more than $240 million, are the Windermere Baptist Conference Center, The Baptist Home retirement facility, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist College (now University) and Word & Way newsjournal.

“The MBC legal team was very pleased with the hearing on April 5 conducted by Judge Callahan,” Whitehead said. “Defendants filed six motions, including motions to dismiss, but the judge granted none of them. He allowed MBC lawyers to proceed with some limited depositions. He also set a hearing date of June 1 on a key motion regarding standing of messengers to represent the MBC. It was important that the messenger case be permitted to take these forward steps, even while we seek a ruling from the Court of Appeals in the church case.”

The April 5 hearing involved the second of two cases now working their way through the state’s judicial system. In the first case the MBC executive board and six churches representing the convention filed a petition for declaratory judgment on Aug. 13, 2002, in Cole County Circuit Court asking the court to rule that the five entities violated Missouri law by amending their charters for self-electing boards of trustees without MBC approval.

In November 2002, Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Brown III ruled -– without comment –- against the five entities’ motions to dismiss the case. Then on March 11, 2004, Brown reversed himself, ruling that the MBC executive board and the six churches did not have standing to file the action because messengers, not churches, were representative members of the convention. Further, Brown refused to allow the MBC to file an amended petition naming messengers as additional parties and said a new petition naming messengers would be required. It is that decision that the MBC has appealed to the state court of appeals.

The second case subsequently listed messengers as plaintiffs, in response to the ruling. Meanwhile, Callahan’s decision to allow discovery to proceed in the case means more testimony will be taken through under-oath depositions. Whitehead told the court that certain key figures had not yet been deposed, such as former MBC Executive Director Jim Hill, now interim executive director of the breakaway Baptist General Convention of Missouri.

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  • Don Hinkle