MBC Attorney: agencies using ‘distortion and double-talk’
By Bob Baysinger
March 30, 2004
|Mike Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney who is heading the MBC’s legal efforts to regain the right to appoint trustees for five institutions, described the unprecedented attempt by moderate and liberal Baptist elements in and outside Missouri to sway the opinion of the state’s Southern Baptists as ‘distortions and double-talk.’|
JEFFERSON CITY – A recent massive public relations campaign by leaders of the anti-Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) contingent, including the Word and Way newspaper, are churning out inaccurate and misleading information, according to the chief legal counsel for the MBC.
Mike Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney who is heading the MBC’s legal efforts to regain the right to appoint trustees for five institutions, described the unprecedented attempt by moderate and liberal Baptist elements in and outside Missouri to sway the opinion of the state’s Southern Baptists as "distortions and double-talk."
“They’re hiding from the heart of the case," Whitehead said.
“The heart of the case is that the agency charters promised that MBC would select their trustees. The agencies broke their promise. In all the public relations smoke they don’t deny it. In effect, they just brag that the MBC can’t legally force them to keep their word. We believe the legal system will find a way to make them keep their word, no matter what procedural loopholes they use.
Tom Brown, a Cole County Circuit Court Judge in Jefferson City , ruled March 11 that neither the MBC Executive Board nor six churches named in the lawsuit have legal standing to represent the Convention in the suit against Missouri Baptist College . The order said that messengers are “members" of the Convention under the MBC constitution, and under Rule 52.10 which permits members of an unincorporated association to bring a legal action. The order did not make any findings about the other four defendants, and did not address the issue of the agency promises that MBC would elect their trustees. Those matters remain to be clarified in further proceedings in this case, and perhaps on appeal or in a new petition. The ruling did not end the lawsuit. It only stated the judge’s decision on who may assert the Convention’s rights.
Following the ruling, Word and Way, used old mailing lists to launch the public relations onslaught. The newspaper blanketed the state with copies of its March 18 edition, declaring victory for itself and four other former MBC institutions involved in the MBC’s legal action against the agencies. Word & Way is the former MBC news journal that has seen its circulation plummet from 65,000 in 1965 to less than 20,000 recently.
The mailing, which told readers they were receiving it because it “contains important news that effects [sic] Missouri Baptist life," declared that a court ruling “effectively ended a pending lawsuit the Missouri Baptist Convention filed against five of its institution in August 2002."
While the newspaper was targeting thousands of its former readers, Missouri Baptist College issued a news release, posted on its website, with a headline: “Lawsuit is Over." The first line of the release stated that the Convention was found to have no standing, when in fact the order found that churches and the Executive Board lack standing to represent the Convention. “The order did not say the Convention has no legal rights," repeated Whitehead. “ The judge hasn’t reached the issue of the agencies’ promises yet, because of all the procedural wrangling by the agencies. He only said that messengers are members and should be named to represent the Convention in court. The agency lawyers heard the Judge say that on February 26, and heard us say we will file a petition naming messengers, if the court wishes. It is breath-takingly brazen to deny the obvious and to pretend that the case is over."
James Smith, executive director of the Missouri Baptist Foundation, followed with a statewide mailing to pastors.
“It is with great joy that we announce the end of a lengthy and expensive chapter in Missouri Baptist history," Smith said.
Frank Shock, CEO at the renegade Windermere Conference Center , duplicated Smith’s letter and posted it on the Windermere Web site, and two other anti-Southern Baptist entities – the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri and the Baptist General Convention of Missouri – joined in the public relations campaign.
From the beginning conservatives have maintained that CBF influences in the state have contributed to the controversy and legal battle and Harold Phillips, CBF coordinator in Missouri , wasted little time in weighing in on the judge’s decision. He described the MBC’s legal efforts to restore the five agencies to the Missouri Baptist family of institutions as “an incredibly expensive legal effort in the name of religion gone awry."
H.K. Neely, president of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri issued a statement on the convention’s web site, declaring that “in dismissing the lawsuit … (Brown) showed more wisdom than many recent Baptists … ."
“Distortions and double-talk," reacted Whitehead. “ It seems to be a well-orchestrated, well-funded national publicity campaign to try to win back a few supporters—before the next round of hearings in the case on motions to reconsider or amend. It will be interesting to see how they explain their statements as the case proceeds."
The college was the first to comment on Brown’s ruling, issuing a news release the same day the ruling was announced. Whitehead said the news release was filled with inaccuracies.
The college said in its release that the suit “has cost the Convention well over a million dollars in attorney and court fees during a period of dramatic budget shortfalls and declining church participation." The released added that “many are pleased that the legal conflict has ended, putting to rest the expense that would have otherwise gone to support ministries and mission efforts."
“Missouri Baptists are waiting for the rest of the story," Whitehead said. “What have agency lawyers been paid, by insurance or otherwise, since 2000, to plan and execute the breakaway strategy. They will not answer the questions in depositions. The agencies have obviously spent many millions since August 2002 using technicalities to avoid their promise That MBC would select their trustees."
Whitehead disagreed with Phillips’ comments as misleading.
“He claims the lawsuit has hurt the Baptist name in the state. He should admit that the agency breakaway — reneging on a promise—is what first hurt the Baptist name,"
Smith said in his letter to pastors that the judge had ruled in favor of all five agencies.
“This is inaccurate," Whitehead said. “The order said the motion of the college is granted. The order does not mention other defendants by name. It does not clearly dismiss the petition as to the other defendants.
“The judge may get around to this, and this may be his intention. Still, the agencies are jumping the gun to claim victory when they know the case is not over."
Whitehead said the heart of the dispute is that the agencies are spending millions of dollars trying to avoid their promise that the MBC can select their trustees.
“They don’t deny they made the promise," Whitehead said. “They just say that legal rules can keep the Convention out of court, or can prevent the Convention from enforcing the agencies promises. They are arguing technicalities in order to avoid the truth.
“This is legalism, which is using legal loopholes to avoid the spirit of the contract. The MBC has the right to elect trustees. This won’t be over until the court holds the agencies to their word – their promise."