JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–A massive public relations campaign against the Missouri Baptist Convention has churned out inaccurate and misleading information, according to the chief legal counsel for the state convention.
Mike Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney heading the Missouri convention’s legal efforts to regain the right to appoint trustees for five institutions, described anti-convention organizers’ various claims as ”distortions and double-talk.”
“They’re hiding from the heart of the case,” Whitehead said of five entities where trustees have acted to break away from the Missouri Baptist Convention.
“The heart of the case is that the entity charters promised that the MBC would select their trustees. The entities broke their promise. In all the public relations smoke, they don’t deny it,” Whitehead said.
“In effect, they just brag that the MBC can’t legally force them to keep their word. We believe the legal system will find a way to make them keep their word, no matter what procedural loopholes they use.”
Tom Brown, a Cole County Circuit Court judge in Jefferson City, ruled March 11 that neither the Missouri convention’s executive board nor six churches listed in court documents have legal standing to represent the convention in a suit against Missouri Baptist College.
The order said that messengers are “members” of the convention under the MBC constitution and Missouri’s Rule 52.10 which permits members of an unincorporated association to bring a legal action. The order did not state any findings about the other four breakaway entities, and it did not address the issue of the entities’ promises that the convention would elect their trustees.
Those matters remain to be clarified in further proceedings in this case, perhaps on appeal or in a new petition. The ruling did not end the lawsuit, Whitehead said; it only stated the judge’s decision on who may assert the convention’s rights.
Following the ruling, the Word & Way newsjournal, one of the breakaway entities, used old mailing lists to launch the public relations onslaught. The newspaper blanketed the state with copies of its March 18 edition declaring victory for itself and four other former MBC institutions. Word & Way is the former MBC newsjournal that has seen its circulation plummet from 65,000 in 1965 to less than 20,000 recently.
The mailing, which told readers they were receiving “important news that effects [sic] Missouri Baptist life,” declared that a court ruling “effectively ended a pending lawsuit the Missouri Baptist Convention filed against five of its institutions in August 2002.”
While the newspaper was targeting thousands of its former readers, Missouri Baptist College issued a news release on its website with the claim, “Lawsuit is over,” in the headline. The first line of the release stated that the convention was found to have no standing, when in fact the order found only that the MBC executive board and churches lack standing to represent the convention.
“The order did not say the convention has no legal rights,” Whitehead reiterated. “The judge hasn’t reached the issue of the entities’ promises yet, because of all the procedural wrangling by the entities. He only said that messengers are members and should be named to represent the convention in court. The entity lawyers heard the judge say that on Feb. 26 and heard us say we will file a petition naming messengers, if the court wishes.
“It is breathtakingly brazen to deny the obvious and to pretend that the case is over,” Whitehead said.
James Smith, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Foundation, as part of the breakaways’ initiative, followed with a statewide mailing to pastors.
“It is with great joy that we announce the end of a lengthy and expensive chapter in Missouri Baptist history,” Smith said.
Frank Shock, CEO at the Windermere Conference Center, duplicated Smith’s letter and posted it on the Windermere website, while two other anti-Southern Baptist entities -– the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri and the Baptist General Convention of Missouri -– joined in the public relations effort to sway the opinion of the state’s Southern Baptists.
From the beginning, conservatives have maintained that CBF influences within the state have contributed to the controversy and legal battle. Harold Phillips, CBF coordinator in Missouri, wasted little time in weighing in on the judge’s decision. He described the MBC’s legal efforts to restore the five entities to the Missouri Baptist family of institutions as “an incredibly expensive legal effort in the name of religion gone awry.”
H.K. Neely, president of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, issued a statement on the convention’s website, declaring that “in dismissing the lawsuit … [Brown] showed more wisdom than many recent Baptists ….”
“Distortions and double-talk,” Whitehead said in reaction. “It seems to be a well-orchestrated, well-funded national publicity campaign to try to win back a few supporters — before the next round of hearings in the case on motions to reconsider or amend. It will be interesting to see how they explain their statements as the case proceeds.”
The college was the first to comment on Brown’s ruling, issuing a news release the same day the ruling was announced. Whitehead said the news release was filled with inaccuracies.
The college said in its release that the suit has cost the convention “well over a million dollars in attorney and court fees during a period of dramatic budget shortfalls and declining church participation.” The release added that “many are pleased that the legal conflict has ended, putting to rest the expense that would have otherwise gone to support ministries and mission efforts.”
Whitehead noted that “Missouri Baptists are waiting for the rest of the story. What have entity lawyers been paid, by insurance or otherwise, since 2000, to plan and execute the breakaway strategy? They will not answer the questions in depositions. The entities have obviously spent many millions since August 2002 using technicalities to avoid their promise that the MBC would select their trustees.”
To a claim by Phillips that the court standoff has hurt the Baptist name in the state, Whitehead said, “He should admit that the entity breakaway — reneging on a promise — is what first hurt the Baptist name.”
And, to Smith’s statement in his letter to pastors that the judge had ruled in favor of all five entities, Whitehead repeated, “This is inaccurate.
“The order said the motion of the college is granted. The order does not mention other defendants by name. It does not clearly dismiss the petition as to the other defendants.
“The judge may get around to this, and this may be his intention. Still, the entities are jumping the gun to claim victory when they know the case is not over.”
Whitehead said the heart of the dispute is that the entities are spending millions of dollars trying to avoid their promise that the MBC can select their trustees.
“They don’t deny they made the promise,” Whitehead said. “They just say that legal rules can keep the convention out of court, or can prevent the convention from enforcing the entities’ promises. They are arguing technicalities in order to avoid the truth.
“This is legalism, which is using legal loopholes to avoid the spirit of the contract. The MBC has the right to elect trustees. This won’t be over until the court holds the entities to their word -– their promise.”
Bob Baysinger is managing editor of The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.