By Vicki Brown
Word&Way News Writer
Cole County Circuit Judge Thomas Brown has denied a Missouri Baptist Convention motion to amend its legal action against five affiliated agencies. In an April 7 ruling, the judge also denied the MBC's request that he reconsider a March 11 order that dismissed the convention's case against all five.
Judge Brown heard arguments on the MBC motion on April 5.
In their motion filed March 24, Michael Whitehead and G. Stanton Masters asked Judge Brown to reconsider his dismissal judgment, to clarify the order that dismissed the case against the agencies and to allow the convention to amend the list of plaintiffs in the original case. In his April 7 ruling, the judge clarified that his March 24 included all five agencies.
On March 11, the judge ruled on a motion to dismiss filed by Missouri Baptist University in which he determined that the convention and six MBC-affiliated churches did not have legal standing to file action against the institutions. The agency heads and their attorneys interpreted the order to mean that the case had been dismissed against all five, while the convention claimed the ruling only affected the case against MBU.
The university, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Missouri Baptist Foundation and Word&Way changed their charters in 2001 to allow them to elect their own trustees rather than to continue to allow the convention to elect them. The Baptist Home trustees had taken the same action a year earlier.
The MBC Executive Board, along with First Baptist churches of Arnold, Bethany and Branson; Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City; Oakwood Baptist Church, Kansas City; and Springhill Baptist Church, Springfield, filed legal action against the institutions in 2002.
At the April 5 hearing, convention attorney Chuck Hatfield argued that the judge should allow the convention permission to amend its original complaint to list individual messengers rather than the churches as plaintiffs. Attorneys filed the motion to amend on March 3 - after arguments were presented on the university's motion to dismiss, but before the judge ruled on March 11.
In his April 7 ruling, Judge Brown noted that because the Executive Board and six churches "are not members of the Missouri Baptist Convention, they do not have, and have never had, any legal right to litigate the claims..." Because the plaintiffs do not have standing, the court has no jurisdiction and could not grant permission to amend the lawsuit.
The judge also noted that the Executive Board does not have standing to bring the litigation on the convention's behalf because it "does not have a legally protectable interest" in the case.
Hatfield pointed to Asmus v. Capital Region Family Practice as case law for the judge to consider. The attorney noted that in that case, an appeals court ruled that the plaintiffs had a right to amend their case.
In his ruling, Judge Brown agreed with university attorney Clyde Farris that the Asmus case did not apply because the MBC is an unincorporated association of churches.
Under Missouri law, convention attorneys have 40 days from Judge Brown's March 11 ruling to appeal his decision to the Missouri Court of Appeals, Western District. The convention could choose to file a new petition against the five institutions, listing different plaintiffs in the case. The MBC also could choose to file both actions simultaneously.
Speaking by phone on April 7, attorneys for the five entities said they are pleased with Judge Brown's ruling and hope that Missouri Baptists will choose to put the case behind them.
"It is the defendants' hope and desire that those who have brought this suit, instead of spending more money and creating more acrimony trying to get someone else to file a new suit or appealing this decision, will now work with these Baptist institutions for the goals that are in the common interest of Missouri Baptists...," Farris noted.
"Too much time and money has been wasted. Too much time and effort has been used to build fences. It is time to take down some fences, or at least to overlook them, and work together to achieve our common Baptist goals. It is our hope that we can now disregard what in reality are, or should be, minor differences and instead cooperate on the significant things we do agree upon."
Foundation attorney Larry Tucker pointed out that the five entities will continue to minister to Missouri Baptists as they have in the past. "On behalf of the Foundation, we're pleased that the judge upheld his March 11 ruling. We are hopeful that the end of the litigation is in sight," he added.
Jim Shoemake, attorney for The Baptist Home, Word&Way and Windermere, also encouraged Missouri Baptists to concentrate on ministry. "I am hopeful that the dismissal of this action will cause all Missouri Baptists to come together for the common good and that the energy and financial resources will be directed toward helping Baptists instead of being destructive," he said.
"On behalf of The Baptist Home, Word&Way and Windermere, each agency shall continue to do what it has done now for many years, which is to devote all of its effort and energy to helping and serving Missouri Baptists."