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NAMB, McRaney attorneys argue before U.S. appeals court panel

U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. BP file photo

NEW ORLEANS (BP) – Attorneys for Will McRaney and the North American Mission Board presented arguments before a panel of three judges at the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Thursday (April 4).

McRaney’s attorney Scott Gant said last year’s dismissal of McRaney’s lawsuit against the SBC entity by a Mississippi district court was “wrong in almost every material respect.”

A district court judge dismissed the case last summer citing the First Amendment and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which holds that courts should not get involved when cases revolve around questions of faith and church practice.

Gant told judges Thursday that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine should not apply in this case.

“The courts have developed doctrines over hundreds of years to figure out when that’s a defense or when they can adjudicate it,” he said. “And when they can’t, this needs to be a chisel and not a sledgehammer. And what the district court did was use a sledgehammer, misunderstanding the facts, misunderstanding the allegations, and misunderstanding the law.”

He also argued that the court should look at each of McRaney’s claims individually rather than assume NAMB enjoys blanket protection from liability. Judge Priscilla Richman seemed to agree that some of the facts of the case could be decided “without getting into ecclesiastical issues.”

At issue is the 2015 termination of McRaney as executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCMD).

McRaney has alleged that NAMB “wrongfully influenced” BCMD leadership, which led to his termination. He further accuses NAMB of defamation and infliction of emotional distress.

NAMB has maintained that court interference in the matter would violate the First Amendment as well as the Baptist principles of autonomy and cooperation.

Even determining whether McRaney violated the terms of the partnership between NAMB and BCMD or whether the two parties consulted appropriately with one another is tantamount to the court’s meddling in church governance and theological matters, NAMB’s attorney, Matthew Martens, argued.

Analyzing the so-called “strategic partnership agreement” between the two Baptist bodies “is fundamentally a governance question,” Martens said, “because it is a governance document governing a voluntary religious association, and it would require theological determinations in order to interpret.”

Judge Andrew Oldham seemed to agree, at one point calling the agreement “a sectarian document from beginning to end.”

McRaney first filed the lawsuit in 2017, and it was dismissed by Senior Judge Glen Davidson of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Mississippi in 2019. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in July 2020, sending the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June 2021 the Supreme Court denied a NAMB request to review the case and returned it back to the district court, where it was again dismissed in August of last year. McRaney again appealed to the Fifth Circuit in November of last year, and NAMB filed a response a month later. Late last year, some state convention leaders and others filed an amicus brief in support of McRaney, while the SBC Executive Committee sought to file one in support of NAMB though it was denied by the courts.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The last paragraph has been updated since original publication.