September 1, 2002
JEFFERSON CITY – There is no guarantee that a state judge will accept an amicus curiae brief by a Missouri lawyer opposing the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) in its declaratory judgment petition case with five MBC agencies where trustees voted to become self-perpetuating.
Michael Whitehead, MBC legal counsel, said the trial judge has discretion to say "no" to such amicus briefs if the judge believes the real parties in the case can adequately address the relevant issues. He said that amicus curiae briefs are almost never filed at the trial court level.
Whitehead’s assessment comes after W.B. (Bart) Tichenor, a long-time Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) activist in Missouri, began advertising on an Internet Web site the day after the MBC petition was filed seeking clients who will permit him to present his brief and arguments to the Cole County (Jefferson City) Circuit Court — even though he does not represent any of the parties involved.
Amicus curiae briefs are used when persons or organizations that are not parties to a particular litigation are allowed to advise the court on matters of law relevant to the case.
"It is a day of infamy in the nearly 200 years history of Baptists in Missouri, when the Executive Board of the MBC and six Missouri Baptist churches drag five Missouri Baptist institutions into court in violation of Scriptural principles," Tichenor says on the Web site. "It was not necessary for this lawsuit to be filed. The Executive Board could have and should have simply carried out the Scriptural instruction of Paul in I Corinthians 6:7 that Christian brothers should not ‘go to law one with another.’"
Supporters of the MBC action say I Corinthians 6 only applies to individuals and not corporations. MBC leaders have stressed they are not asking for monetary damages and are not taking legal action against individuals, but rather corporations.
"A declaratory judgment petition is different from a lawsuit for injury and damages," Whitehead said when the petition was filed Aug. 13 in Cole County Circuit Court in Jefferson City. "It merely asks a court to apply the law to the facts in a dispute to declare who is right and who is wrong. The agencies claim they acted lawfully. We claim they acted unlawfully. We simply need a third party to hear both sides and decide what the law is.
"We are not asking the secular court to interpret John 3:16, but to interpret and apply … Missouri corporate law, making the MBC the ‘sole member’ of the agency corporations. We are rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s when we ask Caesar to render a declaratory judgment about how he interprets the laws."
MBC leaders also point out they were not the first to go to court after trustees at the Windermere Baptist Conference Center, Missouri Baptist Foundation, The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist College and Word & Way amended their charters so they could name their own successors, thus removing MBC churches from the process. The Missouri Baptist Foundation privately went to the same Cole County Circuit Court in October 2001 to obtain a judge’s order to amend the foundation’s charter. The foundation failed to inform the judge at the time that Missouri Baptists’ approval – through formal action of the MBC – was required for charter amendments, MBC leaders maintain. They say they are simply asking the same court to set aside its earlier order and to restore Missouri Baptists’ lawful right to elect trustees and provide accountability.
Another one of the five estranged agencies, The Baptist Home, made two legal threats against MBC individuals. In November 2001, the Baptist Home lawyer threatened to have MBC-elected trustees arrested for criminal trespassing if they attended an open meeting of the agency trustees. Later, the agency lawyers threatened to sue the MBC and individual Executive Board trustees for money budgeted for the agencies subsequently placed in escrow until the unauthorized charters are rescinded. Messengers to the 2001 MBC meeting in Cape Girardeau voted by more than 3-1 in October to escrow approximately $2.1 million earmarked for the five breakaway agencies after trustees refused to rescind their action.
"Mr. Tichenor should tell his colleagues they should just give back the agencies, even if they feel wronged," Whitehead said. "They should not have ‘gone to law’ first, either to the court or to the secretary of state to change their charters without MBC approval. They have spent untold thousands of dollars in legal fees to seize control. Now the convention must go to the same court to restore accountability."
Tichenor says that any church or person interested in his effort may either contact him or download information from the Web site, MissouriBaptists.org. That may not yield much in the way of support since messengers representing the 1,950 churches of the MBC voted by more than 3-1 in October for its Executive Board to do whatever it felt necessary to restore the five agencies’ accountability to the MBC. Also, any MBC church that supports Tichenor’s brief will be putting itself at odds with its fellow MBC member churches.
Tichenor claims that his Web site is not connected to any organization, but insists on keeping secret who else is involved. That has only heightened the suspicion of conservatives, like the Missouri Baptist Laymen’s Association (MBLA), who point out how CBF supporters first tried to move the MBC away from the SBC, then when that failed, started a new convention – the BGCM. They also believe CBF supporters are behind the trustee actions at the five agencies. They also see Tichenor’s involvement in the current legal battle as further evidence of CBF supporters’ desire to seize MBC entities.
Indeed Tichenor, a respected attorney, is a former Missouri CBF moderator and a leader in the new breakaway Baptist General Convention of Missouri (BGCM). The BGCM supports the trustee actions of the five agencies and seeks to align itself with the agencies. Several trustees in the runaway agencies are also leaders in the fledgling state convention.
Tichenor was also on a 1978 study committee which analyzed ownership of MBC agencies, which is often cited by lawyers representing the five breakaway agencies as authority for their right to ignore their promises in the charter.
"This whole battle from the very beginning has been about whether we as Missouri Baptists would continue our historic partnership with the SBC or whether we would go the way of Texas, gradually severing our ties with the SBC and gradually forging new partnerships with the CBF," said Roger Moran, research director for the MBLA. "They stole our five agencies and now it’s clear where they are going," he added, referring to Tichenor’s involvement and the recent revelation that a former moderator for the national CBF, Lavonn Brown, will be the featured speaker at an upcoming ministers’ retreat at Windermere.
"Having the former moderator of the national CBF to speak at a ministers retreat at our conference center is just a glimpse of things to come," Moran said.
Tichenor, who has served as a parliamentarian for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, is no stranger to state or national politics. Eyebrows were raised more than a decade ago when Missouri Baptists learned he was on the national advisory council for the pro-abortion, pro-homosexual Americans United For Separation of Church and State (AU).
In a Dec. 13, 1990, letter to the Word & Way editor, Tichenor assured Missouri Baptists that AU had never taken a position on abortion.
"Having attended the annual conference of AU each year since 1985, and having served on the national advisory council for the past six years, I can assure Missouri Baptists that AU has never taken a position relative to abortion or choice, pro or con," he wrote.
The MBLA points out that he later contradicted himself while defending fellow AU advocate James Dunn’s apparent opposition to what Tichenor described as "AU’s pro-choice position." A year after Tichenor’s letter to the editor, the MBC defunded AU.