By Will Hall, Baptist Message executive editor
NEW ORLEANS (LBM) – Attorney Michelle Stratton filed an amicus brief, Nov. 7, with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the ongoing lawsuit of McRaney v. NAMB on behalf of “current and former Baptist leaders” in response to “a profound misunderstanding of Baptist polity” that she argues led to the dismissal of the case by Judge Glen H. Davison of the U.S. District Court in Northern Mississippi.
LOUISIANA BAPTIST TIES
Stratton is the former Michelle Shamblin who graduated summa cum laude from Louisiana College (2006) and summa cum laude from the Louisiana State University Paul M. Hebert Law Center (2009), according to her online profile. Additionally, she clerked for the Honorable Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (2009-2010); served as a Bristow Fellow in the Office of the Solicitor General of the United States (2010-2011); and was a law clerk to Associate Justice Clarence Thomas with the U.S. Supreme Court (2011-2012).
She is a partner with Smyser, Kaplan and Veselka, which is described by various law websites as a Houston-based “litigation boutique” that enjoys a “big trial firm reputation” from its success in complex civil and criminal cases.
Her father, Mike Shamblin, is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Lake Charles.
Will McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware, alleges that the North American Mission Board interfered in his employment with the state convention, resulting in his termination. He also claims that NAMB subsequently attempted to block him from securing other employment opportunities.
On Aug. 15, Davison ruled for a second time that proceeding with the lawsuit would force the court “to inquire into religious matters and decision-making to a degree that is simply impermissible under the Constitution and the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”
McRaney responded Oct. 31, by filing an appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, for the second time.
In 2020, the federal appeals court ruled against Davison when, in this same case, he invoked this same principle of the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” (a legal precedent that prevents courts from deciding matters of faith such as religious doctrine) to dismiss the lawsuit.
Then, a three-judge panel, and subsequently the full circuit court, said Davison prematurely ended McRaney’s lawsuit because it was not clear that this legal principle was indeed at issue and that “many of the relevant facts have yet to be developed,” and concluded that “it is not clear that any of these determinations will require the court to address purely ecclesiastical questions.”
“McRaney is not challenging the termination of his employment … and he is not asking the court to weigh in on issues of faith or doctrine. …” the three-judge panel said. “His complaint asks the court to apply neutral principles of tort law to a case that, on the face of the complaint, involves a civil rather than religious dispute.”
NEWLY FILED BRIEF
The amicus (or “friend of the court”) brief filed by Stratton decries Davison’s opinion, claiming it “perversely undermines religious liberty in the guise of safeguarding it.”
“Unquestionably, secular courts may not interfere with a church or religious institution’s internal dispute about church government, faith, and doctrine,” she wrote.
However, she also underscored that such matters are not involved in this case, arguing that there is “no such thing as ‘the Baptist Church’ or ‘the Southern Baptist Church.’” Moreover, there is no hierarchy among Baptists as there is in the Roman Catholic Church, Episcopal Church, United Methodist Church, etc., she explained.
“All of this necessarily means that a dispute between McRaney (a former employee of BCMD, a state Baptist convention) and NAMB (an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention) is not an ‘internal’ dispute of ‘the Baptist Church,’” Stratton said.
SBC LEADERS SIGN ON
The brief is significant as well for the number of high-profile Southern Baptists who signed onto it:
— three current and one former executive directors of state conventions headline the list of 62 SBC leaders, with one of the state executives noting that his state mission board voted in favor of the brief;
— six individuals associated with NAMB signed on as well (one now serving as a trustee, three former trustees, including a former chairman, and a former communications director); and
— six persons with ties to the SBC Executive Committee are named (one current trustee, along with 3 former trustees, including a former chairman, and two former executives, including a former president and CEO).
Meanwhile, there are four persons on the list with Louisiana ties, including two pastors as well as one current and one former trustee of the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
The complete list is provided below as excerpted from the amicus brief (with the names bolded by the Baptist Message for visual ease):
Randall Adams, Executive Director/Treasurer, Northwest Baptist Convention (2013 to present); Church Outreach Team Leader, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (2004-2013)
Steve Ballew, Executive Director, Baptist Convention of New Mexico (the State Mission Board of the BCNM voted to affirm this amicus brief’s representations)
Bill Barker, Pastor, Wolffork Baptist Church, Rabun Gap, GA (2019-present); Associational Missions Director, Rabun County Baptist Association (2020-2023); former NAMB National Missionary to Appalachia and the Mississippi River Delta (2001-2017)
Alex Barrett, Pastor, Ridgeview Church, Fontana, CA
John Batts, Pastor, First Baptist Church Clear Lake, WA; Trustee, Southern Baptist Committee Executive Committee
Bryan Bernard, Lead Pastor, Redemption Church, Corvallis, OR; First Vice-President, Northwest Baptist Convention (2021 to present)
Jim Brunk, Pastor, Cookson Baptist Church, Cookson, OK; former Associational Mission Strategist, Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma; former Director of Missions, Grady Baptist Association
Joel Breidenbaugh, Ph.D, Pastor, Gospel Centered Church, Apopka, FL; Member, Executive Committee, Greater Orlando Baptist Association (2008-present); President, Florida Baptist Pastors’ Conference (2016)
Harold B. Bullock, former Senior Pastor Hope Church, Fort Worth, TX (1978-2020)
Terry M. Buster Sr., Pastor, First Baptist Church, Phil Campbell, AL; Trustee and Board Chair, Hannibal-LaGrange University; Missouri Baptist Convention Constitutional Update Committee and Credentials Committee
Jared Byrns, Pastor, Central Baptist Church, Lawton, OK
Travis Cardwell, Lead Pastor, University Park Baptist Church, Houston, TX, a cooperating church of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention
Ken Cavey, Pastor, Bethel Baptist Church, Ellicott City, MD; former NAMB missionary; former staff, Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware; Moderator, Flat River Baptist Association; former Trustee, Golden Gate Seminary
Morris H. Chapman, President Emeritus, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee (2010 to present); CEO and President of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee (1992-2010); President Southern Baptist Convention (1990-1992)
Jason Cole, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Simsboro, LA
Bruce M. Conley, Directors of Missions, Blue Ridge Baptist Association, Boonsboro, MD
Randy Covington, Executive Director/Treasurer, Alaska Baptist Resource Network
Rock Dearfield, Pastor, Second Baptist Church, Ashland, KY; member, Greenup Baptist Association
Steve Dennis, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Checotah, OK; Moderator, Muskogee Baptist Association, Muskogee, OK
William G. Dowdy, Jr., Pastor, Magnolia Baptist Church, Laurel, MS (2016 to present); former Associational Director of Missions, Warren and Yazoo County Baptist Associations (2000-2010)
Bob Farmer, Senior Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Rogue River, OR; Moderator, Northwest Baptist Network
C.W. Faulkner, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Wolfforth, TX, a cooperating church of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention
Joe Flegal, former Director of Evangelism & Church Health, Northwest Baptist Convention, Vancouver, WA
Michael Freeman, Lead Pastor, Valley Christian Fellowship, Longview, WA; Vice-Moderator, Southwest Washington Baptist Association; Chair, Evangelism and Church Health Committee of Northwest Baptist Convention Executive Committee
Russell Fuller, former professor of Old Testament, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Seth Gatchell, Pastor, Pacific Church of Irvine, Irvine, CA
Warren Gilpin, Pastor, Mt. Zion Baptist Church, Norman Park, GA
Bobby Gilstrap, Executive Director, Stone Mountain Baptist Foundation (2016-2020); Executive Director, Michigan Baptist Convention (2011-2014); Associational Director of Missions, Huron and Southeastern Baptist Associations, Michigan (2001-2010)
Ron F. Hale, former member, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee; former NAMB missionary; former Baptist pastor
Adrian W. Hall, Transitional Interim Pastor, Trinity Baptist Church, Renton, WA; former Evangelism Director, Northwest Baptist Convention
Thomas Hardy, Pastor, Peninsula Baptist Church, Portland, OR
Jeff Hessinger, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church, Thompson Falls, MT; former Associational Missionary Strategist, Southeast Arkansas Baptist Network; former evangelism staff, Florida Baptist Convention
Grant Hignight, Associational Mission Strategist, Mercer & Thomas County Baptist Associations, Thomasville, GA
James Bo Holland, Pastor, Living Hope Baptist Church, Tulsa, OK; President, Missionpoint Ministries; former Specialist and Church Planting Director. Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (served 33 years)
Donna Jefferys, former Executive Assistant and Office Manager, Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware; member, The Church at Covenant Park, Columbia, MD
Dale Jenkins, Pastor, Airway Heights Baptist Church, Airway Heights, WA; former Trustee, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee; former President, Northwest Baptist Convention
Thad King, Pastor, Pierpoint Church, Huntington Beach, CA; Member, Orange County Southern Baptist Association and California Southern Baptist Convention
Chris Kruger, Pastor, Dayspring Baptist Church, Chehalis, WA
Randy Lanthripe, Executive Director, 17:6 Church Network; Pastor, Church in the Valley, Ontario, CA
David Leavell, Ph.D., Transitional Revitalization Pastor, Southwest Baptist Church, Bainbridge, GA; Executive Board, Mid-South Baptist Association; Executive Board, Tennessee Baptist Convention; Trustee, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; former President, Tennessee Baptist Convention; former service on Executive Board in five Baptist associations
Daniel A. Lee, Pastor, Bethel Baptist Church, Greenville, SC; active in Three Rivers Baptist Association
Tom Melzoni, Senior Vice President, Horizons Stewardship, Cabot, AR; former Senior Executive Pastor, First Baptist Church Dallas, TX; former Pastor, Central Baptist Church, Oak Ridge, TN; former Chair, Southern Baptist Convention Resolutions Committee (1988)
Rod D. Martin, J.D., Founder and CEO, The Martin Organization, Inc.; member, Conservative Baptist Network; former member, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee
Gus Nelson, Dettman Law PSC; University of Virginia Law School (1988); ordained Baptist preacher and current Bible teacher
Dan Panter, Pastor, McKenzie Road Baptist Church, Olympia, WA; President, Northwest Baptist Convention (2021 to present)
Rick Patrick, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, AL; former Moderator, Bessemer Baptist Association; former Trustee, Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions
Dennis Phelps, Pastor, Coronado Baptist Church, Hot Springs Village, AR; former J.D. Grey Professor of Preaching, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary; Chair, Committee on Resolutions, Kentucky Baptist Convention (2003)
Michael Poff, Senior Pastor, Cornerstone Baptist Church, Warrenton, VA
David H. Rhoades, Senior Pastor, Broadview Baptist Church, Lubbock, TX; Trustee, Plains Baptist Assembly, Floydada, TX; former Finance Committee, Lubbock Area Baptist Association, Lubbock, TX (2019-2021); former Vice-President, Tulsa Metro Baptist Network, Tulsa, OK (2008-2010)
Lewis Richerson, Pastor, Woodlawn Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, LA (May 2012-present); former Administrative Council Member, Baptist Association of Greater Baton Rouge (2013-2016)
David B. Roberts, Pastor, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Midland, MI; Associational Mission Strategist, Bay Area Baptist Association of Michigan
Robert D. Rodgers, retired Vice President, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee
William Schmautz, Pastor, East Valley Baptist Church, Spokane Valley, WA; former Moderator and Chair, Missions Committee, Inland Empire Baptist Association
Clint E. Scott, Senior Pastor, Hilltop Baptist Church, Green River, WY
Jeffery Stading, Pastor, Friendship Baptist Church, Hudson, NC; former Trustee, Baptist College of Florida; former Moderator, Taylor Baptist Association, Taylor County, FL
Keith Stell, Senior Pastor, New Georgia Baptist, Villa Rica, GA
Mike Stone, Pastor, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Blackshear, GA; Chairman, Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee (2018-2020); President, the Georgia Baptist Convention (2017-2018)
David L. Thompson, former NAMB Trustee and Chairman, NAMB Church Planting Division (1999-2009); former Secretary Treasurer, Southern Baptist Convention (Pastor’s Conference) (2006); former Pastor, North Pointe Community Church, Nashville, TN (1999-2014)
Ben Trigsted, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Castle Rock, WA
Bevan Unrau, Senior Pastor, Seabreeze Church, Huntington Beach, CA
Steve Wolverton, Pastor, Canton Baptist Church, Baltimore, MD; former Baptist
Foundation trustee, Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware
Tim Yarbrough, former Editor and Executive Director, Arkansas Baptist News;
former North American Mission Board Church Relations Director; former
Missouri Baptist Convention Program Editor; former staff, Southern Baptist
Convention Brotherhood Commission