JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (BP)–The Missouri Baptist Convention has won round one in the legal battle to bring five entities where trustee boards voted to become self-perpetuating back into the fold.
Following through on a promise to issue a quick decision, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Tom Brown issued a ruling Nov. 20 in favor of the MBC on five motions to dismiss the cases filed by attorneys for The Baptist Home, Word & Way, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Missouri Baptist Foundation and Missouri Baptist College.
The entities had asked Brown to dismiss the suit filed last August by the Missouri convention seeking a declaratory judgment on the legality of the entities’ decision to become self-perpetuating without MBC approval. The convention has asked the judge to determine if the five entities are accountable to the churches of the MBC that founded and supported them for decades with millions of dollars or to only the trustees.
Brown’s decision came one day after he heard arguments for and against the motion to dismiss the MBC petition. At stake: control of the five entities with a combined worth of more than $200 million and perhaps legal precedence that could have ramifications for similar cases in other states.
Brown made no comments in connection with his decision, flatly denying the defense motions. The judge set a status conference with attorneys for Jan. 6 to monitor the parties’ progress with pre-trial discovery.
“It will be a good Thanksgiving season for Missouri Baptists,” said Mike Whitehead, the Kansas City attorney who is serving as spokesman for the MBC legal team. “We are one step closer to having these Baptist ministries that we love come back home to the Missouri Baptist Convention.”
The team also includes two other Kansas City attorneys, James Freeman and Stan Masters.
Whitehead described Brown’s ruling as only one step, but a “very important” step in the legal process.
“The agency boards and their lawyers have based their actions for the past two years on these same legal arguments,” Whitehead said. “They have staked their entire legal strategy on these arguments. They have told themselves and they have told the world that the law is so clear that they are right, that it is beyond dispute.
“But today they must admit they were wrong. Their legal theory was not convincing enough to win these motions.”
Whitehead also predicted that the court’s first decision ultimately will lead to a declaratory judgment of “serious wrongdoing by these trustees and their co-conspirators.”
“This ruling should give pause to agency trustees who have believed that no court would make them account for their actions. Maybe they should have asked permission from the MBC instead of demanding forgiveness,” Whitehead said.
Not to be overlooked in the ruling, the attorney said, is that Brown’s order authorizes MBC lawyers to proceed with scheduling of pre-trial discovery. MBC attorneys had served document requests on defendants, but the entities filed motions for protective orders, which postponed discovery work until a decision was rendered on the motions to dismiss.
“We [MBC lawyers] served document requests on defendants last August, and now defendants will have to answer,” Whitehead said. “And we also will be taking the depositions of many of the agency heads and trustees.
“We must establish evidence by documents and by their testimony, under oath, what the trustees did, and when and for what motives,” Whitehead said. “The defense motions tried to prevent the agency trustees from ever having to answer questions about their actions. The judge’s ruling means that the MBC is entitled to ask questions and that the agency trustees and officers must provide answers and must give any account of their actions.”
David Clippard, the Missouri convention’s executive director, said he was “very pleased” with Brown’s decision, but not surprised. “I expected it to go that way,” he said. “I just say praise the Lord for every little victory. I believe this little victory is going to lead to bigger ones.”
Kenny Qualls, MBC president, said he believes Missouri Baptists want “to see this thing over with.”
“I believe the judge made the right decision,” he added. “I’m not surprised at the decision because I’m convinced that our legal team gave the right opinion to us. I believe they have spelled it out very clearly that actions of these institutions in wrong.
“I really want to see this thing resolved, but I want to see it resolved in the right way. I want peace, but not at the expense of truth. What this decision does is take us one more step toward a conclusion.”
In a related development, Whitehead described the filing of W. Bart Tichenor’s friend-of-the-court brief at the Nov. 19 hearing as “not significant.”
“Amicus curiae briefs normally do not play a significant role in trial courts, and most courts routinely grant leave to file such briefs, whether or not they give any weight to the document,” Whitehead explained. “The defense law firms have raised the same arguments that Mr. Tichenor raises, so his brief will not change the legal arguments or the legal outcome of the case.”
The MBC legal team confirmed that it will take the deposition of Tichenor as a “material participant and witness.” Whitehead said it is believed that Tichenor heavily shaped the legal theory and strategy of the breakaway entities.
Tichenor has come under scrutiny after taking a leadership role in the formation of the new Baptist General Convention of Missouri. He is a former parliamentarian for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and a former Missouri CBF moderator.
An analysis of Tichenor’s brief by the MBC’s new newsjournal, The Pathway, showed that nearly 50 CBF-related leaders are among the 2,485 people signing Tichenor’s brief. There are 650,000 Southern Baptists in Missouri. Of the 35 churches that signed, eight are no longer MBC churches and 24 either financially support the CBF or allow individuals to contribute to the CBF through their church. There are 1,650 Southern Baptist churches and missions in the state.
Baysinger writes for The Pathway, newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.