Southern Baptist polity on trial in lawsuit appeal

A former Southern Baptist state convention leader claims the separation of church and state does not shield religious organizations from lawsuits over actions that would be illegal if committed by a secular business in a case before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Will McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, is asking the New Orleans appellate court to revive his lawsuit dismissed earlier this year alleging job interference and defamation by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention stemming from his termination in 2015.

Will McRaney

McRaney, a former seminary professor, claimed in a 2017 lawsuit that NAMB officials coerced the two-state convention to get rid of him by threatening to withhold $1 million a year in denominational funding. A district court in Mississippi dismissed his claims in April, saying the First Amendment prohibits secular courts from interfering in the internal affairs of a church.

McRaney, now a church consultant living in Orlando, Florida, says his forced resignation had nothing to do with doctrinal schism or heresy but was rather “a power play as to who would be in control” of partnerships between NAMB and autonomous Southern Baptist state conventions.

“The case boils down to whether a non-pastor, acting in an administrative office of a religious body, is prohibited from bringing an intentional tort claim against another religious body with whom he has never been employed,” McRaney said in his appeal. A tort is an act or omission that gives rise to injury or harm to another and amounts to a civil wrong.

McRaney claims he led the two-state convention based in Columbia, Maryland, peacefully for two years before running afoul of what he described as strong-arm tactics by NAMB. After successfully getting him fired, McRaney alleges, NAMB proceeded to blacklist him by getting him disinvited from speaking engagements and urging other Baptist leaders to avoid him.

“May a religious organization commit intentional torts, which would be actionable if done by a secular organization, with impunity under a cloak of religion?” McRaney asked the court of appeals to consider.

The North American Mission Board responded in a legal document filed Sept. 11 that the lower court ruled correctly.

“The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment protect religious organizations from unwarranted secular interference into their internal affairs and affords them the freedom to choose their ministers,” NAMB lawyers argued in the brief.

Under a legal doctrine called “the ecclesiastical abstention,” NAMB said, the court cannot delve into whether there was a “valid religious reason” for determining McRaney to be an “unsuitable minister.”

“As one of 12 boards/entities within the Southern Baptist Convention, NAMB partners … with state conventions like BCMD in mobilizing Southern Baptists as a missional force to impact North America with the gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church planting,” NAMB said.

McRaney’s employment with Baptists in Maryland and Delaware, NAMB said, was “in furtherance of this jointly stated religious purpose,” and his termination “cannot be untangled from the ecclesiastical nature of his employment.”

NAMB said consideration of any of McRaney’s legal claims “would improperly delve into internal church affairs and management, and would result in a secular court questioning the religious decision-making of a church.”

McRaney acknowledged that the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware had a right to terminate his employment, but he contested NAMB’s right to exercise the “golden rule” – “he who has the gold makes the rules” – and to interfere in his employment after his departure.

“The lower court can certainly resolve whether a tort has been committed by one separate and independent religious organization versus a former employee of a completely separate and autonomous religious organization as exists in the Southern Baptist Convention without delving into ecclesiastical questions,” McRaney claimed.

“There are no doctrinal or ecclesiastical issues dividing the parties,” McRaney said. “Consequently, Caesar may enter the temple without having to decide what the temple believes and determine if a civil wrong has been committed.”

“Let the termination of Dr. McRaney stand as an example for any other autonomous Southern Baptist church and convention who dares to stand up to the power and might of the North American Mission Board,” said the appellant brief.

Previous stories:

Reversing course, judge dismisses former state exec’s lawsuit against NAMB

Judge says employment interference lawsuit against NAMB can proceed

‘Ministerial exception’ not a shield for wrongdoing, former Baptist leader says in lawsuit

NAMB denies defaming former state convention exec

Former state exec sues NAMB for libel, interference in business relationships

State convention ‘saddened and disappointed’ by claims of former exec

State Baptist exec blames firing on interference from SBC agency


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