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Mo. Baptist Convention wins at state supreme court

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–The Missouri Supreme Court Sept. 22 handed the Missouri Baptist Convention its third straight victory in its three-year legal battle with five renegade agencies. The Supreme Court refused to hear the agencies’ appeal of the decision of the Missouri Court of Appeals, which was also in favor of the convention.

By denying the application, the Supreme Court let stand the decision of the court of appeals which ruled in favor of the convention and remanded the case to Cole County to proceed to trial.

A May 31 appellate decision reversed the judgment of a Cole County Circuit Court trial judge dismissing the case. The trial judge held that the MBC’s Executive Board could not represent the Convention in the lawsuit due to lack of standing. The three-judge appellate panel disagreed, and held that the Executive Board can represent the Convention.

The Missouri Baptist Convention’s petition for declaratory judgment, filed in August 2002, asked the court to declare illegal certain actions by the five agencies from 2000 and 2001, in which agency trustees amended their charters to make self-perpetuating boards not elected by the Convention. The five agencies, The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Missouri Baptist College and Word & Way, have assets estimated at more than $240 million.

The Supreme Court’s ruling means the MBC’s original lawsuit will return to Cole County Circuit Court. MBC attorneys will soon file an amended petition consolidating the lawsuit upheld by the high court with another lawsuit presently before Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan.

“Any victory in the Missouri Supreme Court is an important victory,” said Michael Whitehead, lead attorney for the convention. “The agencies could have saved everyone time and money by not raising these arguments at trial, or by not appealing when they lost at the court of appeals.

“The Supreme Court apparently believed that these arguments did not even merit a hearing before the high court. They summarily denied the motion for an appeal hearing.”

The five agencies on Aug. 17 asked the Supreme Court to hear their appeal after the court of appeals remanded the case back to Cole County for trial.

In its opinion issued May 31, a three-judge appeals court panel ruled that Cole County Circuit Court Judge Thomas J. Brown III was wrong to dismiss the case in which MBC Executive Board was a party along with six MBC churches on behalf of the convention.

Brown ruled last year that churches did not have the legal standing to sue, stating the MBC’s only “members” are individuals who attend the MBC’s annual meetings as “messengers.”

However, the appeals court said Brown erred and that the MBC Executive Board consisted of members who were “messengers” at the annual meeting and therefore, could sue. The appeals court also said Brown was wrong in not letting the MBC amend its original lawsuit so that individual “messengers” could be named as plaintiffs rather than the churches.

Following Brown’s ruling, the MBC filed a second lawsuit, naming messengers instead of churches and the Executive Board. That case, called “MBC II” is before Cole County Circuit Court Judge Callahan, who has been awaiting the Supreme Court decision before hearing motions in the case. Callahan has ordered limited discovery to continue for both sides. MBC attorneys are expected to depose former MBC Executive Director Jim Hill, who now serves as executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. MBC attorneys are also expected soon to depose representatives of Allegiant Bank of St. Louis, which approved an $18.75 million loan for Windermere after the MBC had begun its legal action.

Once MBC attorneys consolidate the convention’s two lawsuits, the case is expected to proceed to trial before Judge Callahan some time in early 2006.

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  • Don Hinkle