Judge bars Bible bashing in MBC legal case
By Don Hinkle
March 7, 2006
JEFFERSON CITY – A Cole County judge March 1 handed a major defeat to breakaway agencies by denying a motion to permit them to ask further Bible questions to Missouri Baptist Convention leaders regarding so-called contradictions and Bible-based social positions. The court held that the Bible questions were irrelevant to the corporate charter dispute, and that further deposition questioning about this topic would be barred.
Missouri Baptist University attorney Clyde Farris had filed a motion alleging that several MBC leaders had refused to answer some of the questions he had asked about various Bible verses, Bible versions, and biblical-moral positions. Farris claimed that the MBC’s conservative stances on such questions might jeopardize the accreditation of the college, if the convention retained the right to elect trustees. Farris offered the accreditation risk as one of the reasons that the college broke away from MBC and became self-perpetuating.
MBC attorney Michael Whitehead argued that the “Bible bashing” questions were irrelevant and improper because the case is about secular corporate law, not Bible verses. Whitehead warned the judge that the College was leading him “down the primrose path of making this a religious controversy.” The court should resist the temptation, since civil courts lack jurisdiction under the U.S. Constitution to decide religious doctrine issues, or to decide “who is the better Baptist, the MBC or MBU.”
Judge Tom Brown agreed: “I am at a loss to figure out how any of this is relevant. Perhaps (Mr. Farris) can help take the blinders off of me, but I can’t see it.” In spite of Mr. Farris’ arguments, Judge Brown denied the motions.
According to MBC’s reply brief to the motion, MBC leaders were deposed and were asked numerous questions about Bible topics, including: the meaning of Luke 6:16 on adultery; the doctrine of forgiveness of sin; whether the scriptures contain errors; whether the Book of Genesis should be taught as true in Baptist colleges; whether Genesis, Chapter 1 contradicts Chapter 2 as to the number of days in creation, and as to how animals were created; and whether the King James Version is without error. Plaintiff’s counsel objected and directed the witness not to answer further questions about Scriptural interpretations.
MBU attorneys also filed motions seeking more information about the defunding of William Jewell College by the MBC in 2003. Convention attorneys argued that the Jewell decision in 2003 had nothing to do with the agency breakaways in 2000-2001. Judge Brown agreed that the Jewell action was legally irrelevant and further inquiry was banned.
MBU and the Missouri Baptist Foundation filed three other motions for “sanctions” against MBC, or for dismissal of MBC’s petition. Judge Brown first rejected all motions for “sanctions.” He noted that Farris had failed to follow the rules in demanding sanctions before he had even brought the matter to the parties or the court to address what the rules of discovery require.
Farris’ request for “sanctions” against the convention alleged the MBC had refused to follow certain procedural rules regarding some depositions and discovery items. He asked the judge to “fine” the MBC and make the convention pay for attorney fees, travel and lodging for all the defense attorneys to re-take the depositions.
Next, Brown addressed Farris’ “motion to dismiss” the MBC’s second amended petition. He argued that it did not contain sufficient facts of conspiracy, and should be dismissed or amended. MBC attorney Stan Masters countered that the second amended petition was legally sufficient under Missouri law, and the judge agreed. Masters also noted that MBC attorneys are preparing a third amended petition, which will add more details about the MBC’s conspiracy claims. The judge allowed 30 days for the MBC to file its third amended petition.
Farris then raised a dozen objections to some written discovery answers. The judge generally denied all of them, but asked MBC attorneys to clarify a couple of items.
Finally, the Foundation had filed a motion raising a few of the same arguments as those presented by Farris. After seeing what happened to Farris, Foundation attorney Larry Tucker of Kansas City said that he guessed the court would probably rule the same way on his motions. The judge agreed, prompting Tucker to withdraw some of his objections and to offer to work things out with plaintiffs’ counsel.
The rulings by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Brown continue a string of recent defeats for the five agencies. The legal fight began nearly four years ago after trustees of the entities broke Missouri law by amending their charters so they could select their successors without MBC approval. The five entities, Missouri Baptist College, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Word & Way, The Baptist Home and Windermere Baptist Conference Center, have combined assets of more than $40 million.
The judge asked attorneys about discovery regarding Windermere and the temporary restraining order that prevents Windermere trustees from approving any further financial transactions pending a ruling on the MBC’s case against Windermere and the other four breakaway agencies. Whitehead gave a brief update on the scheduling of depositions, and the judge extended the temporary restraining order for the maximum time of another 15 days.
MBC attorneys agreed to file a third amended petition, allow defendants to file an answer and revised motions, and then set a hearing date, probably in May – a target date set earlier by Brown for all discovery to be completed. Brown has told both sides to be ready for a pre-trial conference and trial date scheduling in the fall.