November 19, 2002
JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Baptist Convention has won round one in the struggle to bring five rebellious agencies back into the fold.
Following through on his promise to issue a quick decision, Cole County Circuit Court Judge Tom Brown issued a ruling Nov. 20, in favor of the MBC on five motions to dismiss filed by attorneys for the Baptist Home, Word & Way, Windermere Baptist Conference Center, the Baptist Foundation and Missouri Baptist College.
The agencies had asked Brown to dismiss the suit filed last August by the MBC, seeking a declaratory judgment on the legality of the agencies’ decision to become self-perpetuating without MBC approval.
Brown’s decision came one day after he heard arguments for and against the motion to dismiss the MBC petition.
Judge Brown made no comments in connection with his decision, flatly denying the defense motions. The judge set a status conference with attorneys for Jan. 6, to monitor the parties’ progress with pre-trial discovery.
"It will be a good Thanksgiving season for Missouri Baptists," said Mike Whitehead, the Kansas City attorney who is serving as spokesman for the MBC legal team. "We are one step closer to having these Baptist ministries that we love come back home to the Missouri Baptist Convention."
The team also includes two other Kansas City attorneys, James Freeman and Stan Masters.
Whitehead described the order as only one step, but a "very important" step in the legal process.
"The agency boards and their lawyers have based their actions for the past two years on these same legal arguments," Whitehead said. "They have staked their entire legal strategy on these arguments. They have told themselves and they have told the world that the law is so clear that they are right, that it is beyond dispute.
"But today they must admit they were wrong. Their legal theory was not convincing enough to win these motions."
Whitehead also predicted that the court’s first decision will ultimately lead to a declaratory judgment of "serious wrong-doing by these trustees and their co-conspirators."
"This ruling should give pause to agency trustees who have believed that no court would make them account for their actions. Maybe they should have asked permission from the MBC instead of demanding forgiveness," Whitehead said.
Not to be overlooked in the ruling, the attorney said, is that Judge Brown’s order authorizes MBC lawyers to proceed with scheduling of pre-trial discovery. MBC attorneys had served document requests on defendants, but the agencies filed motions for protective orders, which postponed discovery work until a decision was rendered on the motions to dismiss.
"We (MBC lawyers) served document requests on defendants last August, and now defendants will have to answer," Whitehead said. "And we also will be taking the depositions of many of the agency heads and trustees.
"We must establish evidence by documents and by their testimony, under oath, what the trustees did, and when and for what motives," Whitehead said. "The defense motions tried to prevent the agency trustees from ever having to answer questions about their actions. The judge’s ruling means that the MBC is entitled to ask questions and that the agency trustees and officers must provide answers and must give any account of their actions."
David Clippard, MBC executive director, said he was "very pleased" with Brown’s decision, but not surprised. "I expected it to go that way," he said. "I just say praise the Lord for every little victory. I believe this little victory is going to lead to bigger ones."
Kenny Qualls, MBC president, said he believes Missouri Baptists want "to see this thing over with."
"I believe the judge made the right decision," he added. "I’m not surprised at the decision because I’m convinced that our legal team gave the right opinion to us. I believe they have spelled it out very clearly that actions of these institutions in wrong.
"I really want to see this thing resolved, but I want to see it resolved in the right way. I want peace, but not at the expense of truth. What this decision does is take us one more step toward a conclusion."
In a related development, Whitehead described the filing of W. Bart Tichenor’s friend-of-the-court brief at Tuesday’s hearing as "not significant."
"Amicus curiae briefs normally do not play a significant role in trial courts, and most courts routinely grant leave to file such briefs, whether or not they give any weight to the document," Whitehead explained. "The defense law firms have raised the same arguments that Mr. Tichenor raises, so his brief will not change the legal arguments or the legal outcome of the case."
The MBC legal team confirmed that it will take the deposition of Tichenor as a "material participant and witness." Whitehead said it is believed that Tichenor heavily shaped the legal theory and strategy of the breakaway agencies."