September 29, 2002
COLUMBIA—W. B. (Bart) Tichenor has finished his statewide "friend-of-the-court" tour, saying he is pleased with the number of people who have joined his effort to oppose the Missouri Baptist Convention’s (MBC) legal action against five breakaway institutions.
The tour concluded Sept. 26 with stops in Rolla, Farmington and Cape Girardeau. Tichenor made presentations at Camdenton, Joplin and Ozark on Sept. 24. The previous week’s schedule included stops at Hannibal, Chillicothe, St. Joseph, Kansas City, Columbia and St. Louis.
By the time the tour had reached Columbia on Sept. 18, 1,120 individuals had signed on in support of Tichenor’s amicus brief. The attorney said his supporters were from 80 different churches.
Few of the signers, however, have been present at Tichenor’s "whistle-stops."
Only 21 people met with Tichenor in the Columbia First Baptist parlor. The Columbia church recently withdrew its membership from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Meanwhile, the crowd totaled only 11 the previous evening at Wyatt Park Baptist Church in St. Joseph where Jimmy Albright is pastor. Albright, who was the keynote speaker at the information/planning meeting of the new Baptist General Convention of Missouri (BGCM) meeting in January, presented Tichenor with a petition supportive of his efforts.
One of the largest crowds (more than 50) for Tichenor gathered at Second Baptist Church in Liberty Sept. 19. Second Baptist made headlines when the MBC refused to seat its intended messengers to the 2001 state convention in Cape Girardeau because the church had earlier withdrawn its membership from the SBC. The MBC Constitution says churches must be an SBC church in order to hold membership in the MBC.
Tichenor told the Columbia gathering that he made the decision to file an amicus brief in Cole County Circuit Court the morning after hearing that Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City had become one of six Southern Baptist churches in Missouri voting to lend its name to the MBC petition that asks a judge to determine if trustees at the five institutions acted illegally when they amended their charters, giving themselves sole authority in selecting their successors and removing MBC churches from a process in which they have historically participated. The five agencies the Baptist Home, Word & Way, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Windermere Baptist Conference Center and Missouri Baptist University are said to have combined assets of approximately $200 million.
An amicus brief permits persons or organizations not parties to litigation to advise the court on matters of law relevant to the case. Tichenor said he expects to file the brief in Cole County Circuit Court about the second week of October.
"When I started this I thought I might get a couple hundred names and four or five churches," Tichenor told the Columbia crowd. "I expect there will be more than 1,200 names by the time I file the brief."
When asked if he believed the brief and those in support represent the majority of Southern Baptists in Missouri, Tichenor said he isn’t concerned about the majority.
"No, I don’t think the amicus brief represents the majority," Tichenor answered. "I’m not concerned with being the majority. This isn’t an issue of the majority. It’s an issue concerning rights and responsibilities that need to be brought before a judge."
Observers noted that Tichenor’s support may be even less—percentage-wise—than he realizes. With the 2001 MBC Annual reporting 617,000 Southern Baptists in Missouri, those joining Tichenor’s effort represent .00019 of 1 percent.
Tichenor, a lawyer-activist who has worked for BGCM and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), said the fact that a growing number of Southern Baptist associations throughout the state are passing resolutions in support of the MBC’s legal action has no bearing on the issue.
Seven associations representing about 200 churches and 20,000 members have adopted resolutions calling for the five rebellious agencies to rescind their action and bring themselves back under the accountability of MBC churches. In recent weeks resolutions have been adopted by Lamine, Twin Rivers, Harrison, Southeast Missouri, Salt River, Barry and Tri-County Baptist Associations.
Tichenor said he respects the rights of churches and associations to adopt resolutions and admitted that he had read a couple of them.
"I guess I would have to ask how many of those pastors are going to go back to their church and present the resolutions and also present the type of information that I am presenting," Tichenor said. "I believe if there was some way to present to every Missouri Baptist congregation the information presented here today, they would say: ‘Why are we bringing this suit?’"
Tichenor, who also works as chief counsel for the Missouri State Tax Commission, indicated that not everybody wants to join the amicus brief list.
A former pastor at Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church in Boone County, Tichenor is now a member of Memorial Baptist Church in Columbia.
"At Memorial, I didn’t have the church act (on the amicus brief) because there are some SBC denominational loyalists in the church. I don’t happen to be there, but I respect them for that," Tichenor said. "It’s up to each individual. I’m not out to create a disruption in any church."
Several questions were posed to Tichenor after he completed his presentation in Columbia.
A man who identified himself as a member Calvary Baptist Church in Columbia asked why the MBC Executive Board escrowed money that had been budgeted for the five entities and did not withhold money from William Jewell College. The MBC does not appoint trustees for William Jewell.
Withholding money from the Liberty school, Tichenor predicted, would "cause a great, great stink in the state."
"The relationship between the Missouri Baptist Convention and William Jewell is basically an element of trust," he explained. "I may not agree on everything they do at William Jewell, but they elect their replacement trustees, as Missouri Baptist University can do now, and the convention can’t do a thing about it."
Several in attendance at Columbia questioned Tichenor about how the MBC Executive Board could legally withhold money from the five entities.
"If they came to me and asked about the validity of escrowing funds, I’d say let’s take a look at the (MBC) business and financial plan. And there’s nothing in that plan that authorizes the escrowing of funds," he stated, adding that one church in Hannibal (Fifth Street Baptist Church) is considering asking the MBC to return to the church its portion of the escrowed money.
Tichenor was critical of the letter Bob Curtis, MBC president and pastor of Ballwin Baptist Church, Ballwin, mailed to SBC churches in Missouri, listing the reasons for the suit.
"Dr. Curtis stated that the suit for declaratory judgment was not a suit against individuals," Tichenor said. "They say they’re not asking for damages in this suit, but what happens if a judge finds that the MBC was damaged in some way and awards damages?"
Tichenor predicted attorneys for the five institutions will file a motion to dismiss the suit "toward the end of October."
Concerning the expected impact of the amicus brief, Tichenor admitted that it is "very unusual" to file such a brief at the circuit court level.
"It would be a little bit unusual for the judge to accept the brief before evidence is put on," he said. "Once evidence is put on I will ask permission to file a final brief. If the judge lets the brief in, I don’t know how much credence he will give to it. It’s all in the mind of the judge." During his presentation in St. Joseph, Tichenor said the MBC’s petition for declaratory judgment revolves around the questions of who controls the institutions. He referred to several reports commissioned by the convention in the last 125 years to address that issue.
"These are separate legal entities. They’ll rise and fall on their own," he said. "To say someone else owns them is like saying someone owns you."
But David Tolliver, pastor of Pisgah Baptist Church, Excelsior Springs, MBC recording secretary, and a member of the convention’s legal task force, pointed out that the five agencies are owned by the trustees for the benefit of the MBC and not the benefit of the trustees.
Tichenor, who is not among the attorneys hired to plead the trustees’ case, told attendees in St. Joseph that the boards of the five institutions decided to appoint their own trustees to limit the financial liability in case of a lawsuit. Convention leaders have said that issue is a smokescreen and that this is really an attempt by the trustees, many of whom are disgruntled moderates who oppose the conservative direction of the SBC and MBC, to move the five agencies toward the BGCM and the CBF.
An unidentified attendee at the Wyatt Park meeting, claiming to be a trustee for Word & Way, said the trustees decided to strike out on their own because they could not fulfill their mission statement in the political environment that had been created in the MBC. Conservative leaders have disputed that as well, maintaining the real issue is the more liberal theological views of many trustees.
When asked why trustees for the five entities did not ask for permission before changing their charters, Tichenor said to ask for permission would have acknowledged control and reinforced the chain of liability.
That answer didn’t satisfy David Mason, pastor of Green Valley Baptist Church of St. Joseph.
"It seems to me, given the theological climate, that it just smells funny," Mason said. Conservatives point out that no agency has been threatened with a liability lawsuit and the liability issue is nothing but a mask for the trustees’ bent on seizing control of the five agencies from the MBC.
Tichenor acknowledged that the convention had the legal right to escrow $2.1 million earmarked for the renegade institutions this year. But that step was required, Tolliver said.
"We really don’t have the option to fund these entities that elect their own trustees without changing our constitution," Tolliver explained. "That’s a little talked about issue." Tolliver also clarified Tichenor’s statement that the MBC is seeking a monetary settlement in the lawsuit. The only way the convention could receive money for breach of contract would be if the court ruled that the convention has legal control of the institutions. Then, the convention would be taking money from its own entities.
"We would be robbing ourselves," Tolliver said. "Why would we do that?"
Tichenor is no stranger to Missouri politics in and out of the church. He has served in leadership posts for the CBF, a splinter organization of moderates who disagree with the conservative direction of the SBC. He is a former moderator of the Missouri CBF, a board member for the ultra-liberal Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the CBF-funded Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs (BJCPA). Both Americans United and the BJCPA were formerly supported by the MBC but have been defunded because of their liberal views on a variety of issues such as homosexuality and abortion.