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Mo. convention wins court ruling against breakaway entities

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (BP)–A Missouri appeals court on May 31 issued a unanimous 3-0 decision in favor of the Missouri Baptist Convention, reversing a trial judge’s dismissal and rejecting major legal arguments by five breakaway entities.

Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Brown III had dismissed the case in March 2004, ruling that the MBC and its executive board lacked standing to sue. The three-judge appeals panel found that the dismissal was “improper” because the convention had standing and could be represented by the executive board. The appeals court “reversed and remanded” the case, sending it back to the trial judge with an opinion which resolves several procedural issues and clears the way to move toward the merits of the declaratory judgment action filed by the MBC.

The Kansas City court held that the trial judge properly interpreted the Missouri Baptist Convention’s constitution which defined membership in terms of messengers rather than churches. However, the appeals court held that the trial judge misapplied Missouri Civil Rule 52.10 when he dismissed the executive board, which includes officers and messengers, and which can represent the convention between the annual meetings. According to the appeals panel, the trial court at least should have permitted the convention to add messengers to the case by amendment rather than dismissing the case and requiring a new case to be filed.

“The reversal of the dismissal order is in itself a very important procedural victory for the MBC,” Michael Whitehead, lead attorney for the convention, said. “But the opinion also contains some very important language that rejects major legal arguments of the breakaway entities. This language should help the trial judge reach the merits, which should result in the sooner return of these ministries to the Missouri Baptist Convention family.”

As an example, Whitehead recalled that the breakaway entities claimed in oral argument that no one had the right to represent the convention because the convention existed for only three days. The court emphatically disagreed. “While who has standing to bring the action has proven confusing, Rule 52.10 indicates that someone has the ability to bring an action on behalf of the Missouri Baptist Convention.”

The court also rejected the entities’ interpretation of a 1935 decision by the Missouri Supreme Court, Farm and Home Savings Assoc. v. Armstrong. When Hardin College defaulted on its mortgage, a bank sued the college and also sued about 100 messengers to the Missouri Baptist General Association (the former name of the convention). The Missouri Supreme Court held that the messengers could not be held liable for the debts of the college, just because the association elected the trustees for the college. The 1935 opinion also contained language that the association was “phoenix-like” and could act “during only the period of a particular annual session.”

The Kansas City appeals court, in its footnote 6 of its May 31 opinion, rejected this view: “In interpreting the earlier embodiment of the association, (the MBGA), the Court ruled that the organization was phoenix-like and could act ‘during only the period of a particular annual session.’ … This court’s review of the governing documents reads the constitution in its present form to indicate a perpetual organization and does not find this earlier characterization a compelling analysis of the modern incarnation of the convention.”

The panel stated in section B on page 7, “On its face, the constitution clearly reflects that the Convention is an ongoing entity that meets annually.”

Whitehead explained: “The defendants argued that the convention is just a meeting. We argued that the convention has a meeting annually, but it is an ongoing association, with perpetual existence. From the beginning, the defendants have used the Farm and Home [case] to mislead many fine folks, telling them this case would prevent the convention from enforcing its right to elect trustees. This case has been a critical part of their legal scheme, but the appeals court has finally laid the ‘phoenix’ to rest. This footnote is a huge victory for the MBC.”

The appeals decision came just 40 days after the April 20 oral argument in the case. Court observers had estimated that a wait of six to 12 months would not be unusual in a complex case.

Court rules give the defendants 15 days to ask the full court of appeals to reconsider or rehear the case, or they can ask the Missouri Supreme Court to transfer the case. The courts have complete discretion whether to rehear or to permit further appeal by the breakaway entities.

A hearing previously scheduled on June 1 before Judge Richard Callahan was postponed on agreement of the parties because of the appellate opinion. After the judge and counsel review the case, hearings on pending motions will be rescheduled.

Whitehead said that some sentences in the opinion “may affect our future legal strategy and thus require further study.” He noted that there are now two MBC-initiated cases pending in Cole County and it will be necessary to consolidate those cases in some manner so there is only one case before one judge. That process will include filing an amended petition to properly join all claims and all parties in one action. It is not yet known which judge would handle the consolidated case.

“This opinion provides good cause for Missouri Baptists to be encouraged,” Whitehead said. “This opinion is a giant step toward restoring these ministries to the Missouri Baptist Convention family, sooner rather than later.

“And,” Whitehead concluded, “the day is fast approaching when the court will reject other excuses like the Farm and Home case and will hold the breakaway trustees accountable for their unlawful acts of changing their corporate charters to cut off MBC’s rights to elect trustees.”

The case is Executive Board of the Missouri Baptist Convention, et al., v. Blunt, et al. WD64069, Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District. The opinion may be viewed online at http://www.courts.mo.gov/courts/pubopinions.nsf/e53581bdd14e64858625661f004bc8fd/8af42880d70d0db7862570120050305e?OpenDocument.
Story provided by The Pathway, the official newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.mbcpathway.com.

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