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NRB Member First Liberty Institute Asks Court to Review Decision on Church Autonomy

On Wednesday, Feb. 17, First Liberty Institute and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, on behalf of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention, petitioned the Supreme Court of the United States for a writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for failing to protect the First Amendment rights of religious organizations.

NAMB is an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention that partners with churches, local associations, and state conventions to advance the gospel by planting new churches and providing compassion ministry across North America.

In April 2017, Will McRaney, an ordained minister and former Executive Director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, sued NAMB claiming that NAMB influenced his termination. In April 2019, a United States District Court, dismissed the case concluding that the case would necessarily involve secular courts scrutinizing why a religious organization terminated its leader—a matter that courts are prohibited from addressing under the church autonomy doctrine. McRaney appealed the case, and the United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit reversed the decision in a 7-2 decision in July 2020. Now, NAMB is requesting that the United States Supreme Court review and reverse this decision.

“The U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear that the Constitution protects the independence of religious organizations to choose their own leaders,” said Kelly Shackelford, President, CEO, and Chief Counsel for First Liberty Institute.  “The mission of NAMB is to help local churches plant new churches and engage in compassion ministry to share the gospel.  Secular courts are ill-equipped to evaluate how that mission is best carried out and by whom.”

The church autonomy doctrine acts to protect religious liberty for religious organizations and local churches by preventing courts from reviewing cases that challenge how they structure themselves to pursue their mission. It prevents secular courts from stepping in to oversee how religious groups partner together. Without this doctrine, courts would be able to interfere with NAMB’s ability to carry out its mission.

“Just as courts cannot tell the local church who it must hire to preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission, courts cannot influence those decisions when there are two groups working together,” said Shackelford. “The First Amendment strikes that balance for us in favor of church autonomy.”

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