OXFORD, Miss. (BP) — The First Amendment stands as the lead point for the North American Mission Board’s position in its relationship with the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCMD) and the 2015 dismissal of executive director Will McRaney.
NAMB’s May 18 motion for summary judgment was filed on behalf of the entity in the U.S. District Court of Northern Mississippi.
“NAMB filed this motion because the evidence developed during extensive legal discovery—which is now complete—overwhelmingly supports NAMB’s consistent factual defenses, as well as the religious liberty protections afforded churches and other ministries like NAMB,” said a spokesperson for the entity. “We are hopeful the court will dismiss this unsubstantiated lawsuit again, as it did in 2019.”
On the same day, McRaney’s attorney also filed a motion for a summary judgment.
Repeated attempts to reach McRaney and his attorney by Baptist Press for comment were unsuccessful.
NAMB cited a previous dismissal of the case in April 2019 on First Amendment grounds because of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. That dismissal was reversed in July 2020.
The 2012 strategic partnership agreement (SPA) between NAMB and the BCMD was “an inherently religious agreement,” NAMB said. In its brief, the mission board stated that disagreements over “religious objectives” in connection with the SPA and McRaney’s actions “inconsistent with SPA provisions” led to disharmony.
Ultimately, NAMB issued a letter to the BCMD on Dec. 2, 2014, exercising its right to terminate the SPA with a one-year notice.
NAMB asserts that McRaney made hires unilaterally that were to be jointly approved, according to the SPA. In addition, the then-executive director “impose[d] associational giving and work requirements on NAMB-funded church planters, which was also inconsistent with the SPA.”
Although initially supportive of McRaney, BCMD leadership turned negative further into 2015 until at a June 8 meeting of the state convention’s General Mission Board (GMB).
One representative for associational leaders described rumors of absorbing those positions into the state convention as “leaving more questions than answers” in meetings with pastors. BCMD President William “Bill” Warren stated that McRaney had circumvented state convention polity. Others spoke to low morale among staff, including one staffer’s assessment that McRaney’s “narcissism is choking.”
The final vote by the board to remove McRaney as the state executive director was 37-0.
A year later, Warren reflected on the vote in an email to another BCMD pastor.
“This is the bottom line: we fired Will because of his wretched leadership not because of a possible loss of NAMB funds,” he wrote.
Separation agreement and ’supporting organization’
NAMB’s second argument for a summary judgment states that McRaney released the entity by signing a separation agreement upon his termination. The separation agreement granted McRaney six months’ salary of $67,681, health benefits, and the ability to retain his cell phone, computer and iPad.
In signing the agreement, McRaney released “the Convention and its past, present and future affiliates, agencies, supporting organizations, member churches, associations of churches, messengers, committee members … , officers, employees, trustees, volunteers, agents, attorneys, successors, and assigns … , from any and all actions, causes of action, suits, claims,” and more.
However, in his motion, McRaney pointed to four reasons why NAMB should not be seen as a “supporting organization” of the BCMD as NAMB claims.
First, he claims NAMB is violating a mandatory forum selection clause that states all suits, proceedings and other actions shall take place in a state or federal court in Maryland. “NAMB presses its (meritless) defenses based on the Separation Agreement, yet fails to abide by the Agreement’s forum selection provision,” the brief reads.
The second argument centers on the term “supporting organization.” Maryland law dictates that a supporting organization should be dictated in alignment with the Internal Revenue Code, said the McRaney brief.
“NAMB acknowledges it is not a supporting organization of BCMD under that definition,” it read. “Instead, it advances a definition … that is subjective, open-ended and defies commonsense – in contravention of basic principles of Maryland law governing contract interpretation.”
The third point states that the discovery process revealed NAMB’s defenses related to Maryland law and the Separation Agreement as “lack[ing] factual merit.” The fourth point contends that NAMB “seeks to enforce provisions of the Separation Agreement as a non-party to the contract.”
Maryland law, McRaney’s brief said, is restrictive about when a party can enforce a contract as a third-party beneficiary.
“NAMB had no role in, or knowledge about, the Separation Agreement when it was negotiated and executed,” it stated, putting forward that McRaney “intended to preserve his claims against NAMB when he signed the Separation Agreement. Under these facts, Maryland law does not permit NAMB to enforce the Separation Agreement.”
Claims of fault
In its document, NAMB also addressed the term “supporting organization.”
“There is no genuine dispute that NAMB is a ‘supporting organization’ released under the Separation Agreement,” it said. “Plaintiff stated in writing that ‘NAMB’s role’ was to ‘provid[e] support’ to BCMD.”
The entity cited the testimony of Barry Hankins, a Baptist historian who, until recently, served as chair of the Department of History at Baylor University. Hankins was invited by McRaney’s council to testify as an expert witness.
Hankins initially testified that “NAMB is not a ‘supporting organization’ of BCMD.”
However Hankins later “testified at his deposition that he understood the [Strategic Partnership Agreement]’s reference to ‘supporting partner[s]’ to refer to “NAMB and BCMD.”
NAMB also stated in its document that it bore no fault in claims of harm done toward McRaney, specifically in regard to a lack of speaking opportunities.
One instance cited by the plaintiff concerned a disinvitation to speak at a Mississippi church in 2016.
“[The pastor], who has never been a NAMB employee, testified unequivocally that he – not NAMB – made the decision to rescind Plaintiff’s invitation … not because of any influence by NAMB but because Plaintiff had rashly publicized on Facebook his post-termination dispute with NAMB,” the document stated.
The case is scheduled to appear in court on Aug. 7.
To view the entire NAMB filing (54MB PDF), click here.