Press Releases

Southern Baptist Group Asks Supreme Court to Review Decision Interfering with Church Autonomy

February 17, 2021

News Release
For Immediate Release: 2.17.21
Contact: Lacey McNiel,
Direct: 972-941-4453 

Southern Baptist Group Asks Supreme Court to Review Decision Interfering with Church Autonomy
First Liberty Institute petition asking Justices to review Fifth Circuit decision in light of the Supreme Court ruling in Our Lady of Guadalupe

Washington, DC—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, asked the Supreme Court of the United States today to reverse a lower court decision impacting how religious organizations cooperate with local churches, a sacred right protected by the First Amendment.

You can read the petition here.

“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.”

NAMB partners with churches, local associations, and state conventions of the Southern Baptist Convention to share their Christian faith by planting new churches and providing compassion ministry. A former executive director of one of these state conventions sued NAMB alleging that NAMB influenced his termination. On April 24, 2019, the district court dismissed the case, concluding that the case would necessarily involve secular courts scrutinizing why a religious organization terminated its leader—a purely ecclesiastical matter secular courts are barred from addressing under the church autonomy doctrine.  A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed that decision upon appeal.

The church autonomy doctrine protects the religious liberty of religious organizations and local churches by preventing courts from reviewing cases challenging how they structure themselves to pursue their religious mission.  In this case, if secular courts can step in at any time to oversee how religious groups partner together, it could interfere with NAMB’s ability, and the ability of any local church, to carry out its mission of helping support churches to share the gospel, engage in compassion ministry, and plant new churches across North America.

“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.”

In July 2020, the Supreme Court of the United States in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru ruled 7-2 that courts must stay out of employment disputes involving important positions within churches and religious organizations.


About First Liberty Institute

First Liberty Institute is a non-profit public interest law firm and the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to defending religious freedom for all Americans.

To arrange an interview, contact Lacey McNiel at or by calling 972-941-4453.

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