NEW ORLEANS (BP) — First Amendment protections and the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) non-role in the termination of a state executive director remain central in the SBC entity’s latest legal filing.
NAMB reasserted on Nov. 30 its position that it “assists” state conventions and other mission partners as opposed to directing or having “agency over” those groups in response to an appeal filed with the Fifth Circuit Court by former state executive Will McRaney.
McRaney originally sued NAMB in the spring of 2017 over allegations that the missions agency had “wrongfully influenced” his termination as executive director for the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware. Furthermore, McRaney charged NAMB personnel with slandering him and thus costing him speaking engagement opportunities.
The case was dismissed in April 2019 over the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, which is “rooted in the First Amendment’s free exercise clause,” wrote Senior Judge Glen Davidson of the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of Mississippi. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision in July 2020.
An amicus brief filed the next month in support of NAMB’s request for an en banc hearing – written by the Thomas More Society and joined by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission – inaccurately described Southern Baptist polity and prompted an apology from the ERLC.
According to court documents supplied to Baptist Press by McRaney’s attorney, Scott Gant, a privilege log recorded by the Thomas More Society shows that NAMB’s outside counsel had access to the brief days before it was originally submitted.
In June 2021 the Supreme Court denied a NAMB request to review the case and returned it back to the district court. A year ago, Davidson set a date for a jury trial that was eventually moved to August. However, before the trial started the judge granted a summary judgement in favor of NAMB – again citing the First Amendment.
In his appeal filed Oct. 31, McRaney said the decision “misapprehends the facts and the law, while itself threatening religious liberty and raising Establishment Clause concerns.” An amicus brief filed the following week in support of McRaney contained 62 signatories, including three state Baptist convention directors and former SBC Executive Committee President and CEO Morris Chapman.
In its most recent filing, NAMB took issue with the amicus brief as well as McRaney’s point that the district court opinion erroneously referred to “the Baptist Church,” a term that does not accurately describe the Southern Baptist Convention, a collection of like-minded churches working in cooperation to further the Gospel worldwide.
“Plaintiff … contends that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies only to ‘an intra-church dispute,’ which he suggests is a concept that does not apply to Baptist church polity,” the said filing. “Amici go further, proposing that this Court re-write the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine to apply only to a ‘religious institution’s internal dispute about church government, faith, and doctrine.’
“Were Plaintiff’s and his amici’s argument accepted, a secular court could decide questions of faith and doctrine so long as the dispute did not fall within the walls of a single religious institution. This argument is legally meritless.”
NAMB’s filing includes citations from BCMD leaders stating that McRaney’s termination was due to his leadership and not from any concerns over NAMB funding. Furthermore, it added, McRaney’s “public obsessions with NAMB and its president, Kevin Ezell, persuaded NAMB to take unprecedented steps to ensure the safety of Dr. Ezell and NAMB personnel” including hiring personal security for Ezell and installing a home security system.
The document said that McRaney’s “theory of ecclesiastical abstention” would place organizations that prefer voluntary cooperation, like Baptists, at a disadvantage to those of a single hierarchal nature when it came to judgements over religious freedom.
“This would be ironic, to say the least, since it was the Baptists who were the most vocal and persistent proponents of religious liberty in early America,” it read.
Baptist Press reached out to McRaney and his attorney for comment, but none had been received as of deadline.
In a statement to BP, NAMB addressed what it called “the plaintiff’s unfounded appeal.”
“NAMB’s court filings have consistently and accurately reflected Southern Baptist autonomy and cooperation,” a spokesperson said. “Should he prevail, the plaintiff’s appeal would limit constitutional protections against government interference into religious matters for all churches and ministries – not just Baptists.
“NAMB’s response continues the long Baptist tradition of being among the most vocal and persistent proponents of religious liberty since early America, defending the constitutional freedoms all churches and ministries hold dear.”