Appeals Court reverses dismissal of MBC case against institutions - Word&Way

Appeals Court reverses dismissal of MBC case against institutions

By Vicki Brown, Word&Way News Writer

A reversal of one part of a decision rendered in Cole County Circuit Court may return the Missouri Baptist Convention’s case against five related agencies to that court for resolution.

In a preliminary opinion issued May 31, the Missouri Appeals Court for the Western District reversed Cole County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brown’s March 24, 2004, decision to dismiss the MBC’s legal action against The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist University, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Windermere Baptist Conference Center and Word&Way.

The five agencies can request a rehearing before the appellate court or ask the court to transfer the case to the Missouri Supreme Court. If the appellate court turns down the request, the entities themselves can ask the Supreme Court to consider the case. Deadline to request the rehearing is June 15.

If the entities choose not to pursue the option or the courts turn them down, the case will return to Judge Brown.

Currently, a second case, which the MBC filed on Oct. 25, 2004, is pending in Cole County Circuit Court under Judge Richard Callahan. If the first case is returned to Cole County, the two lawsuits likely would be combined. “The tradition is to combine the youngest case with the oldest,” Foundation attorney Larry Tucker said.

In 2000 and 2001, the five institutions changed their charters to allow each entity to elect its own trustees. In the past, the convention had elected board members. The MBC continues to seek to overturn those revised charters.

The MBC Executive Board and six representative churches filed legal action against the five entities in August 2002. In his March decision, Judge Brown ruled the plaintiffs did not have standing — the legal right — to represent the convention to file the lawsuit.

In its May 31 opinion, the appellate court said the Executive Board has the legal right to sue as a representative of the convention because it is composed of members and members elect its officers. Judge Brown was correct in dismissing the board from the suit as an independent corporation, the appellate court noted.

However, the court ruled that the six churches — Springhill Baptist Church, Springfield; Oakwood Baptist Church, Kansas City; Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City; and First Baptist churches of Branson, Bethany and Arnold — do not have standing.

The convention had sought to amend the original petition by substituting individual messengers for the six churches. On April 7, 2004, Judge Brown denied the request and allowed his March ruling to stand. Convention attorneys filed a notice of appeal on April 16.

The appellate court noted Judge Brown correctly determined that messengers, not churches, are members of the convention. “The trial court correctly analyzed the question of membership in accordance with the constitution and bylaws of the convention,” the opinion noted.

MBC attorneys had argued that the convention often interprets the governing documents to mean that churches are members. MBC attorneys compared the relationship to representative government — churches send messengers to the convention as representatives or agents.

The opinion noted that under Missouri law, the courts must consider only the contract — in this case, the convention’s constitution and bylaws — unless the contract is ambiguous. The court determined the MBC governing documents clearly refer to messengers as members.

“While the contract doesn’t speak directly to the issue of who ‘members’ are…it sufficiently defines the character of the organization to allow an interpretation of this issue,” the court said. “The aggregate of the convention is not individual churches, defined by the constitution as wholly autonomous, but is the messengers in attendance at the annual meetings.”

“The opinion confirms what we argued — that churches are not members,” Tucker said.

However, the opinion did not specify which messengers would be qualified to represent the convention. “We can’t tell who should represent the convention based on the opinion,” he said.

Should only convention officers or board members represent the MBC? If so, would representatives be limited to those who were serving at the time the lawsuit was filed or to those who currently serve? Should people who had served at any time in the convention’s history be allowed to represent it? What about individuals who simply attend and vote at annual meetings? A court may be asked to determine eligibility, Tucker said.

The convention also challenged Judge Brown’s ruling that the MBC is not a member of the university’s corporation and his dismissal of the Missouri Secretary of State from the case.

According to Tucker, the university ruling remains a valid decision but cannot be considered as final because the case has been returned to the lower court.

The secretary of state remains a party to the legal action, again because the lower court will reconsider it. The MBC included the secretary of state’s office because the convention alleges that the office should not have filed the entities’ amended charters.