By Will Hall, Baptist Message executive editor
AMORY, Miss. (LBM) – Will McRaney announced Sept. 11 his intention to appeal the Aug. 15 ruling by the U.S. District Court Northern District of Mississippi that determined his lawsuit against the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention 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.”
In a statement to The Baptist Paper, McRaney contended that the court’s decision “is built around the erroneous concept of ‘THE’ Baptist Church as a denomination like the Catholic or Methodist Church.”
Indeed, in legal filings supporting NAMB’s position, the SBC is described as “the umbrella Southern Baptist governing body over all the various groups of churches.” This contravenes the SBC’s constitution which declares it “is independent and sovereign in its own sphere” and that it “does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention.”
McRaney further argued that the Court’s latest ruling results in a legal determination that “a form of hierarchy” does indeed exist, and threatens the autonomy and independence of Baptist churches and entities.
NAMB, meanwhile, announced after the District Court’s Aug. 15 ruling that “as Christian ministries, NAMB and others involved in this case should be protected by the First Amendment and should not be forced to endure scrutiny and intrusive examination from the courts.”
The lawsuit likely is headed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that previously voted against this same District Court when it invoked similar principles of the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” (a legal precedent that prevents courts from deciding matters of faith such as religious doctrine) in this case.
In 2020 the Circuit Court said the District Court 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. …” a three-judge panel of the Circuit Court stated then. “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.”