Attorneys wrangle over wording in MBC documents at Feb 26 hearing
By Bob Baysinger
March 2, 2004
JEFFERSON CITY – Cole County Circuit Court Judge Tom Brown unexpectedly declined to hear arguments on scheduled motions to dismiss on Feb. 26 and instead asked attorneys to argue an unscheduled motion for partial summary judgment regarding a similar issue, namely whether the Missouri Baptist Convention should be represented in the case by individual messengers rather than by affiliated churches.
Judge Brown had previously scheduled five other motions for the hearing, and the lawyers for all parties were in the courtroom prepared to argue these “motions to dismiss." The judge began the hearing by announcing that he had reviewed the docket sheet and had decided that the five defense motions were not ready for hearing for various technical reasons. As he discussed matters with the attorneys in open court, the judge decided to hold a hearing on a motion for summary judgment filed by Missouri Baptist College , even though it had not been previously scheduled.
Clyde Farris , the attorney for Missouri Baptist College , was allowed ten minutes to summarize his argument in the MBC suit for declaratory judgment against the college and four other breakaway MBC institutions – Word & Way, Windermere Baptist Conference Center , Missouri Baptist Foundation and The Baptist Home. Stan Masters was allowed 15 minutes to respond. Time did not allow other lawyers present for the parties to speak.
Farris cited portions of both the MBC Constitution and MBC by-laws in his argument that the governing documents mean that messengers are members of the convention, not churches. Masters argued that the documents don’t say clearly that messengers or churches or members. The Constitution does say the “the Convention shall consist of messengers from affiliated churches. Masters said affiliated churches are member churches. Brown seemed to question this definition of “affiliated," but did not announce a ruling. Court rules say that an association’s “members" can represent the association, so the court is seeking to decide who has the right under the MBC governing documents to “represent" the Convention in the case.
If Brown decides that the some individual messengers should be named as representatives in the lawsuit, MBC lawyers may file a new or amended petition naming certain messengers. The MBC legal team told the judge that, if he requires messengers to be named, the six pastors from the six churches could be named as plaintiffs, since they were also messengers to the pertinent annual meetings, and they all have been previously deposed.
“This is a procedural bump in the road, not the end of the road," said Mike Whitehead , head of the MBC legal team. “This bump will slow us down a bit, but as soon as the judge decides, we can amend the petition as necessary and move on to the merits. If the judge believes that messengers must be named in the case, it is important that we find out about that sooner, rather than later. If this issue came up after a lengthy trial, it might be very hard to fix it. At this early stage, it will be simple to comply with whatever process the court requires."
When the lawsuit was filed in 2002, the plaintiffs named were the Executive Board and “the Missouri Baptist Convention, an unincorporated association, by its representative members," six Missouri Baptist churches – Concord Baptist Church, Jefferson City; Springhill Baptist Church, Springfield; First Baptist Church, Branson; First Baptist Church, Arnold; First Baptist Church, Bethany and Oakwood Baptist Church, Kansas City.
Masters told Judge Brown at the Feb. 26 hearing that Missouri law clearly gives the MBC “the right to determine who its members are."
Masters said the most recent pronouncement by the Convention concerning its representatives came in 2000 and 2001 when the credentials committees issued rulings at the annual meetings. In 2001 and 2002, the committee unseated messengers because they were not representing churches in good standing with the Convention.
“Article 4, Section 3 of the Missouri Baptist Convention Constitution talks about applying for membership," Masters said. “There are no free-lance messengers at the annual meeting. They’ve got to come from a church."
Brown gave both MBC attorneys and Farris seven days to file suggested court orders with his office.