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Baptists in Tennessee, Texas, Use Lawsuits to Settle Disputes

Friday was a busy day for Southern Baptists in court: The Tennessee Baptist Convention amended its breach-of-contract lawsuit against Belmont University, adding claims that the university’s charter is illegal. A federal judge in Texas refused to dismiss a discrimination lawsuit against Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. And 54 members of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., filed suit for access to church records.

In the sixth chapter of First Corinthians, the Apostle Paul said it is shameful for Christians to take each other to court. Yet that hasn’t stopped Bible-believing Southern Baptists from increasingly turning to civil authorities to settle internal disputes.

EthicsDaily.com reported Sept. 6 that eight months of mediation talks about the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s 2006 lawsuit over governance of BelmontUniversity failed, and the dispute appears headed for trial next May.

The convention wants to recover $58 million from Belmont, citing a long-lost 1951 “repayment agreement” the TBC says entitles Tennessee Baptists to recover gifts to the school should they ever lose the power to elect Belmont’s trustees.

Last week convention attorneys amended the complaint to also claim that Belmont’s charter, amended in November 2005 to allow trustees to elect their own successors without approval by the state convention, wasn’t authorized under Tennessee law.

Belmont said in a statement the university has “no moral or legal obligation” to return any monies, but it tried to settle the dispute in an effort to maintain the school’s historic relationship with Tennessee Baptists. The intent of the charter change, Belmont says, was to allow the university to have a trustee board more reflective of the diversity of students’ Christian backgrounds. Due to rapid growth in the student body, most students no longer come from Tennessee Baptist Convention churches.

The amended complaint said document discovery since the original lawsuit prompted the TBC to include two additional causes of action. Belmont officials said their confidence in the merits of their legal position “has only grown over the past few months.”

Also on Friday, U.S. District Judge John McBryde in Fort Worth, Texas, denied a motion by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its president, Paige Patterson, to dismiss a lawsuit by Sheri Klouda, a former professor who claims she was illegally dismissed because she is a woman.

Klouda filed suit in March, seeking damages including gender discrimination, breach of contract, defamation and fraud.

Meanwhile, The Tennessean reported Tuesday that a faction of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville seeking the removal of Pastor Jerry Sutton filed a lawsuit claiming church leaders are blocking access to records that could show whether funds have been misappropriated.

The plaintiffs say Tennessee laws governing non-profit corporations allow members to inspect and copy certain records. In addition to wanting to view financial records, the group seeks an accurate count of the church’s membership in order to override leadership’s refusal to hold a meeting to discuss governance issues by forming a quorum.

Citing Paul’s warning against Christians going to law before heathen courts, Baptists historically have viewed litigation as a last resort or not an option at all. But with doctrinally divided factions fighting over huge assets, civil action has become less the exception over the last decade.

The Missouri Baptist Convention has been in litigation for five years since suing five formerly affiliated institutions in an effort to have their charters declared illegal.

The Georgia Baptist Convention took four years to win a lawsuit against ShorterCollege over trustee election, before prevailing in a 4-3 ruling by the state’s Supreme Court.

Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention agreed to loosen ties amicably in 2005, after both sides conceded it was in their best interest to avoid a legal battle.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.