A second lawsuit has been filed challenging the conduct of church officials during last June's stormy Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas and the resultant election of the denomination's key Committee on Boards, Commissions and Standing Committees.
Five Southern Baptist lay persons from as many states filed suit in Superior Court of Fulton County (Atlanta) Ga., last week asking to have that election overturned and seeking an injunction against SBC officials from "further violations" of church bylaws.
The suit, and an identical one filed last December in federal court, springs from the long-running battle between conservatives and moderates for control of the 14 million-member church, the nation's largest Protestant body.
It focuses on actions at the national convention last June 12, involving the election of the Committee on Boards, Commissions and Standing Committees, a body that influences the control of most national units of the denomination. Moderates have contended that conservative forces used illicit methods at the national gathering to wrest control of the denomination.
With an official slate of nominees to the 52-member committee before the convention last June, a Richmond pastor, the Rev. James H. Slatton, sought to introduce a substitute slate of nominees.
SBC President Charles F. Stanley of Atlanta ruled Slatton's proffered nominations out of order, holding that the official slate could not be amended by an alternate slate, but only on a one-by-one basis.
On a challenge, a majority of the messengers, as Southern Baptist delegates are called, rejected Stanley's interpretation of SBC bylaws. But before action on the contested nominations could be resumed, the meeting adjourned.
When the matter came before the convention in the evening session, Stanley, saying he was acting on the advice of parliamentarian Wayne Allen of Memphis, ruled that the official slate of nominees could not be amended at all, and the slate was elected.
The suit filed last week in Georgia maintained Stanley's rulings were "erroneous" and "violated the integrity of the bylaws . . . and were in excess of his authority as the presiding officer at the Dallas convention and deprived the plaintiffs and other messengers . . . of the protection of fair and unbiased procedures" that the bylaws are intended to guarantee.
The plaintiffs also maintain that since the Committee on Committees was not lawfully elected, the body is "without authority to serve."
In asking the court to "enjoin the defendants from further violations, the plaintiffs contend that "there is a substantial likelihood that Dr. Stanley, as the president and presiding officer . . . and defendants will violate the plaintiffs' rights and those of other messengers . . . by making similar rulings in violation of the bylaws at future conventions . . . . "
Pleadings in the Georgia suit are identical to one filed last December in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia by an Alabama couple and a man from Missouri. Attorneys said the second suit was filed because attorneys for the defendants have indicated they will seek to have the earlier suit dismissed on the grounds that the federal court lacks jurisdiction.
Atlanta is Stanley's home as well as the site of key SBC offices.
A spokesman for the plaintiffs said they are pressing to have the case heard before this year's SBC convention, June 10 to 12 in Atlanta.
The SBC executive committee, the body which acts for the denomination between annual conventions, has retained a team of attorneys, including former U.S. attorney general Griffin Bell.
A spokesman for the defendants said they will seek to have the charges dismissed on the grounds that First Amendment guarantees of church-state separation should bar the courts from hearing the case.
In a related development, a Peace Committee, named last year to try to reconcile the feuding conservative and moderate factions of the denomination, took steps to establish guidelines for the selection of an "impartial, qualified parliamentarian or parliamentarians for the annual conventions in the future.