Written by Don Byrd

Via Religion Clause, a state appeals court in Missouri this week resolved a longstanding dispute between the Missouri Baptist Convention and Missouri Baptist University over the school’s attempt to break from the convention. Ruling in favor of the Convention, the court held in part that the arguments raised by the university to justify its changes to the charter would require an inappropriate judicial inquiry into religious matters. Specifically, the court highlighted the University’s claim that demands made by the Convention violate an agreement providing that the “Christian college has as its purpose the discovery, preservation and transmission of truth.” 

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

[T]he University is asking a court to consider whether the Convention anticipatorily breached a document stating, in part, that the University’s purpose was the “transmission of truth” by dictating curriculum related to creationism and the story of Noah’s ark. Considering this defense as it currently is presented requires a court to rule – at least implicitly – on the truth of the story of Noah’s ark or Christian beliefs in creationism. We cannot conceive of a judicial inquiry which would impose on ecclesiastical matters more than this, nor can we find fault in the circuit court’s unwillingness to even attempt to find neutral grounds upon which it could rule when the color and content of the University’s allegations are so nakedly religious.

By referring repeatedly to the religious and ideological motivations animating the Convention’s actions, and by then relying on that motivation to justify the application of various affirmative defenses, the University would have this Court hold that religious adherents changing organizational policy to better align with religious doctrine as they understand it constitutes unclean hands, a breach of fiduciary duty, or a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. This we must not do.

The court emphasized that it could rule on church-related disputes involving issues that were religiously neutral, but that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment bars courts from intruding into areas that would entangle it with religious questions, or decide issues of religious law.

For more on this controversy, Brian Kaylor offers detailed analysis of the ruling and its likely impact, and provides some helpful background information.