Patterson’s attorney again moves to dismiss Klouda case

FORT WORTH — A Fort Worth attorney representing Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson filed two motions in U.S. district court Jan. 23 seeking dismissal of a former professor’s wrongful termination suit and also limiting discovery until a ruling is made on this latest effort.

Attorneys for the seminary, Roland K. Johnson and Shannan E. Goss also filed a motion for a summary judgment, and a brief in support of that motion. A summary judgment contends that all necessary factual issues are settled or so one-sided they need not be tried.

The motions by attorney J. Shelby Sharpe seek dismissal of a lawsuit in the alleged wrongful termination of Sheri Klouda, former professor of Hebrew at the seminary’s school of theology. The other seeks to limit discovery in the original case until a ruling on the dismissal is forthcoming. The 2007 lawsuit charged Southwestern and Patterson with breach of contract, fraud and defamation, and sought unspecified damages because Klouda was terminated from her position.

Klouda later alleged she was denied tenure, and that her teaching contract was not renewed because she is a woman. Klouda’s attorney amended the suit to include discrimination. The additional complaint necessitated a second motion to dismiss since the original complaint was changed.

Patterson told Baptist Press last March that the seminary does not employ women to teach men, with a desire to “model” the practice of the local church as outlined in Scripture.” The Baptist Faith and Message, adopted by messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, states that the role of senior pastor in local churches should be held by men. Patterson, according to the suit, believes that same standard applies to the seminary’s School of Theology.

Sharpe’s motion to dismiss counters the suit, essentially saying that the court has no jurisdiction in such an ecclesiastical matter.

The motion to dismiss asks: “Since all claims set out in [Klouda’s] second amended complaint are predicated on an ecclesiastical decision not to continue [Klouda’s] employment as a member of the faculty of the School of Theology and the communications of the theological reasons for the decision in response to plaintiff’s public statement about the employment decision, are all of these claims in the “realm where the Constitution forbids” the “federal judiciary” to “tread” requiring dismissal for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction?

The Jan. 23 motion also states: “The judicial admissions in the amended complaint and the admissions in two prior complaints along with the accompanying evidence establish that all of [Klouda’s] claims against the Seminary and its president pertain to matters of ecclesiastical administration and government making them peculiarly ecclesiastical in nature and thereby placing them outside the subject-matter jurisdiction of any civil court based on the longstanding doctrine of ecclesiastical abstention or church-autonomy doctrine, which includes the ministerial exception doctrine.”

On Jan. 24, the judge responded by signing an order that Paige Patterson’s motion to dismiss should be re-filed as a motion for summary judgment. He gave Patterson and his lawyers until Feb. 4 to re-file the motion. Shelby Sharpe told the TEXAN that he planned to comply with the judge’s order well in advance of that deadline.

The seminary’s brief supporting their motion for summary judgment also attacks the court’s jurisdiction in “an ecclesiastical decision which is protected by the church autonomy doctrine under the First Amendment.” The brief claims that that the seminary’s relationship with its faculty is similar to the relationship between a church and its ministers.

Plano, Texas, attorney Kelly Shackelford, who has argued numerous religious liberty cases in federal court, said issues “that touch in any way on the seminary’s right to follow doctrine in hiring its religious instructors” are constitutionally protected.

Sharpe’s limitation of discovery motion asks: “Because a motion to dismiss all claims for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction is pending a ruling before the Court, which, if granted, will make discovery on the merits of the claims a complete waste of time and money for all parties, should all discovery be limited to those matters relevant to a decision of the jurisdiction issue until that issue is decided?”

Van McClain, chairman of Southwestern’s board of trustees, told the Dallas Morning News last year that the seminary has returned to its “traditional, confessional and biblical position” that a woman should not instruct men in theology courses or in biblical languages.

McClain said the seminary was gracious to Klouda as she looked for a teaching position elsewhere. “The administration … allowed her to teach a full two years after she was told that whe would not have tenure.”

TEXAN Correspondent
Norm Miller
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