Ongoing discussion of a federal court case concerning religious liberty for Muslims has prompted the resignation of an International Mission Board (IMB) trustee and a revision of the IMB’s process for submitting friend of the court briefs.
Dean Haun, pastor of First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., resigned from the IMB trustee board in November based on his conviction the IMB should not have joined a friend of the court brief last May supporting the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, N.J., (ISBR) in its religious discrimination lawsuit against a local planning board. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) also joined the brief.
Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal reported Haun’s resignation Jan. 23, and at least four other Baptist state papers published the report.
Amid continuing discussion, IMB President David Platt released a statement to Baptist Press (BP) noting, “As a result of discussions among IMB trustees and staff over recent months, we have revised our processes for our legal department filing any future amicus briefs. IMB leaders are committed in the days ahead to speak only into situations that are directly tied to our mission.”
Clyde Meador, retired executive advisor to Platt, told BP the IMB joined the ISBR amicus brief in an effort “to support the USA’s foundational principle of religious freedom” and “to support Baptist partners and others around the world who seek permission to construct church buildings.”
In December, U.S. district judge Michael Shipp ruled the Planning Board of Bernards Township, N.J., violated federal law when it required the ISBR to include more than twice as much parking in its site plan for a proposed mosque as it required for local Christian and Jewish houses of worship.
In his ruling, Shipp acknowledged the friend of the court brief joined by the IMB and ERLC, stating it “supports” the ISBR’s arguments that unlawful religious discrimination occurred.
The amicus brief argued the Planning Board violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects religious institutions from discrimination in zoning laws.
A friend of the court brief – referenced in legal terminology with the Latin phrase “amicus curiae” brief – allows a person or organization which is not a party to a case to interject legal arguments reflecting concern over precedent the Court’s decision may establish.
Haun, a former Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) president, told BP resigning from the IMB trustees “was one of the most heart-wrenching decisions that I’ve ever had to make in my ministry because I feel like I’ve been a faithful Southern Baptist all my life.”
First Baptist Morristown took up its normal Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions in December, Haun said, out of a desire to continue to support IMB missionaries. The congregation is escrowing funds it would have given through the Cooperative Program, the Baptist and Reflector reported, and “praying about their long-term response” to the action of the IMB and ERLC. But First Baptist continues to support TBC ministries.
Haun cited two reasons for his resignation: (1) The amicus brief “at least borders on” an “unholy alliance” with followers of a religion that denies both the deity and the atonement of Jesus; and (2) Joining the brief does not comport with the IMB’s stated “mission and purpose.”
Scripture forbids “unholy alliances” in 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, Haun said, arguing the brief supports Muslims in their effort to construct a house of false worship.
“I don’t think the IMB advocates the same doctrine as the Muslims,” Haun said. “But I do think that Paul warns us about making these unholy alliances. And I think that’s where we’re scripturally on the edge.”
Regarding the IMB’s mission and purpose, Haun said, “I understand the religious liberty aspect of the entire argument. But I do not understand why the International Mission Board, with our mission to reach the world for Christ, would have to jump into the fray of a mosque being built in New Jersey.”
While Haun was still an IMB trustee, he contacted Platt with this concerns and the amicus brief was addressed at a confidential “trustee forum” in August, the Baptist and Reflector reported.
Meador, who retired from the IMB in May, said in written comments the amicus brief “speaks to a matter closely related to International Mission Board work around the world. In a great many countries, especially but not exclusively Muslim-majority countries, Baptist churches with whom missionaries work find it very difficult if not impossible to receive permission to build church buildings.”
The IMB’s worldwide Baptist partners “emphasize the basic principle of religious freedom” in “seeking to obtain building permits,” Meador said. While religious freedom in the U.S. does “not necessarily” persuade other nations to grant similar freedom, “contrary action by the USA would be quite persuasive.”
“Should it be clear that the USA does not uphold its principle of religious freedom when applied to the building of mosques, an excuse is readily available to any Muslim or other opposing country to deny the building of church buildings,” Meador said.
The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), Article XVII, affirms, “Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends. In providing for such freedom no ecclesiastical group or denomination should be favored by the state more than others … The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion. A free church in a free state is the Christian ideal, and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power.”
The preamble to the BF&M notes “Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty.”
A statement on the IMB’s website notes “IMB’s specific interest in the brief arises out of the belief that all peoples of the world have the right to religious liberty…. The IMB is responsible for carrying out its ministry consistent with the entirety of the Baptist Faith and Message, not only the portions related to sharing the gospel.”
Platt cited the BF&M in his statement to BP and noted, “We continue to affirm that everyone should be able to freely worship according to their religious convictions.”
Platt continued, “At the same time, our primary purpose as an organization is ‘to partner with churches to empower limitless missionary teams who are evangelizing, discipling, planting and multiplying healthy churches, and training leaders among unreached peoples and places for the glory of God.’”
Out of a commitment to “speak only into situations that are directly tied to our mission,” IMB leaders have “revised” their process for filing amicus briefs, Platt noted. He also expressed gratitude for Haun’s trustee service.
Meador told BP he did not know the former or current IMB protocol for joining amicus briefs. The IMB’s legal department was not available to explain its protocol before BP’s publication deadline. The ERLC told BP in an email it “did not ask anyone to sign on” to the brief.
The ISBR amicus brief states it was filed by attorneys with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the New York City firm of Reich and Paolella and the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom. No attorneys paid with Cooperative Program (CP) funds are listed as having prepared the brief.
Following Shipp’s December ruling and earlier satirical news stories claiming Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) dollars were being used to construct mosques, SBC Executive Committee President Frank S. Page noted CP funds have never been requested “for the construction of any non-Christian house of worship; nor would we agree to such a request.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)