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SBC Executive Committee Emphasizes Autonomy in Amicus Brief Supporting NAMB Against Will McRaney Lawsuit

NAMB executive committee Will McRaney
Kevin Ezell, right, president of the North American Mission Board, was joined onstage by Vance Pitman – new leader of NAMB’s church planting division, Send Network – who encouraged attendees that through the hardships, the mission is still moving forward. (Photo courtesy of Baptist Press)

Another amicus brief has been filed on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) Executive Committee (EC), this time in the case of Pastor Will McRaney’s lawsuit against the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB). 

The brief, which was filed on Dec. 4, comes a little more than a month after it was publicly revealed that an amicus brief filed on behalf of four SBC entities, including the EC, had sided against statute of limitations reforms for sexual abuse cases in Kentucky.

The Kentucky brief has been the subject of widespread criticism from abuse survivor advocates and SBC leaders, eliciting an apology from SBC president Bart Barber for signing off on it. Nevertheless, no apparent effort has been made on the part of any SBC entity leader to rescind the brief. 

This new brief, which was filed with the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, reasserts the longstanding claim that the SBC is not a hierarchical denomination but a voluntary affiliation of local churches and related entities. 

The brief was filed with regard to a lawsuit that was originally filed by McRaney in 2017. In the suit, McRaney alleged that NAMB defamed him, resulting in his dismissal as Executive Missional Strategist at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware (BCMD).

At the time, NAMB and the BCMD were entering into a strategic agreement in which NAMB, which is the SBC’s domestic missions organization, would provide resources to the BCMD for evangelism and church planting. McRaney has alleged that NAMB used its resources to pressure the BCMD to terminate him after he expressed concern that the agreement would compromise the autonomy of the BCMD. 

In the amicus brief, lawyers argued that NAMB has no authority over the BCMD, as the BCMD “is an independent and self-governing organization. It has no intrinsic relationship with the SBC or any SBC Entity except a relationship based on voluntary cooperation.”

“As a matter of polity, neither the SBC nor any SBC Entity has any right or control over BCMD’s ministries, employment decisions, budget, or any other operations,” the brief continued. 

“In order to adjudicate the dispute between [McRaney] and NAMB, a court would first be required to delve into BCMD’s reasons for terminating [McRaney’s] employment,” the brief later said. Referencing a previous court decision in the case, the brief added, “The District Court correctly determined that evaluating that action by BCMD would require the court to become entangled in BCMD’s decision about who should serve as its highest-ranking ministerial.”

The brief further argued that delving into the BCMD’s ministerial hiring decisions would be a First Amendment violation. 

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“For the Court to adjudicate the merits of the claims presented in this case would necessarily entangle it in the religious doctrines, faith, scripture-based tenets, beliefs, governance, polity and missionary objectives of BCMD and NAMB,” the brief stated. “Such judicial review would unquestionably run afoul of the jurisdictional bar under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine.”