Missouri High Court decision effectively ends convention case against Windermere - Word&Way

Missouri High Court decision effectively ends convention case against Windermere

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s highest state court has turned down a request to examine a district court ruling favoring Windermere Baptist Conference Center.

On May 5, the Missouri Supreme Court issued its decision to refuse to transfer a Missouri Baptist Convention case against the conference center to the court’s jurisdiction. The MBC petitioned the High Court directly after a three-judge appeals court panel denied the convention’s request to transfer the case.

The state Supreme Court’s decision effectively ends the convention’s case against Windermere.

The MBC had hoped for one more opportunity to overturn Cole County Circuit Court Judge Richard Callahan’s ruling on March 4, 2008, that Windermere had acted legally when trustees changed its articles of incorporation.

On Feb. 3, the Missouri Appeals Court, Western District, upheld Judge Callahan’s ruling that the MBC is not a member of Windermere’s corporation and that no contract exists between the two entities.

“We are gratified that the Missouri Supreme Court has reviewed and now denied the Missouri Baptist Convention’s application for transfer of the appeal involving Windermere Baptist Conference Center,” noted Windermere lead attorney Jim Shoemake in a prepared e-mail statement on May 5.

Windermere president and chief executive officer Dan Bench also welcomed the high court’s decision.

“We are pleased that the state Supreme Court has upheld the wisdom of the appellate and circuit court judges that carefully examined the merits of the case,” he said, also in an e-mail release.

The Supreme Court’s decision marks the latest in a nearly seven-year legal tangle between the MBC and five formerly affiliated entities — Word&Way, The Baptist Home, the Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist University and Windermere.

The five changed their articles of incorporation — The Home in 2000, and the rest in 2001 — to allow each to elect its own trustees. The convention filed legal action on Aug. 13, 2002, to seek to regain control of the five.

MBC leaders and attorneys knew an appeal to the Missouri Supreme Court was a legal long-shot. That body’s procedural rules call an appeal to the High Court “an extraordinary remedy” in most cases. The court usually will only hear cases of broad general interest or importance, or cases which re-examine existing law.

The MBC could try to seek an audience before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the chances of securing a hearing in the nation’s highest court are slim at best.

Generally, that body considers cases in which a decision conflicts with previous lower court or federal court rulings, or when a lower court has decided an important question of federal law that has not or that should be settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The effect of Windermere’s legal victory on the four remaining cases has yet to be determined. Judge Callahan suspended further action on those cases until the MBC exhausted its appeal options. No dates have been set for those hearings.

The convention may choose to continue to pursue Windermere through a second legal action the MBC filed in Camden County in 2006. Circuit Court Judge Kenneth Hayden dismissed that case on April 9, ruling that the issues included in the Camden County case mirror the Cole County legal action. The MBC has until May 19 to appeal that ruling.

Windermere officials and attorneys hope the Supreme Court’s decision will put legal matters to rest and allow the conference center to focus on ministry.

“We urge the MBC to accept these judicial rulings and allow Missouri Baptists to put this sad conflict behind us,” Bench said. “Windermere remains open to all Missouri Baptists, just as we have for over 50 years.”

“After nearly seven years of needless litigation and the immeasurable costs incurred on everyone involved, Windermere is free to focus on its operations and good works,” Shoemake noted.

“We hope that anyone who may have judged Windermere in the past will now acknowledge that the actions of Windermere’s board of trustees were always consistent with both Missouri law and the corporation’s best interests,” he added.

Vicki Brown is a correspondent for Word&Way.