A judge has ruled for Southern Methodist University over the South Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church in a lawsuit over who controls the Dallas school.
The jurisdictional conference sued SMU in December 2019, soon after SMU’s trustee board changed the school’s articles of incorporation, eliminating rights spelled out for the jurisdictional conference, including approval of trustee appointments and real estate transactions.
The jurisdictional conference sought a jury trial, but the proceedings never got that far.
After more than a year of lawyers’ filings and counter filings, leading to a court record of thousands of pages, Dallas Civil District Court Judge Maricela Moore last month dismissed by summary judgment the jurisdictional conference’s remaining claims.
Both the jurisdictional conference and Texas Conference Bishop Scott Jones, who intervened on the jurisdictional conference’s side, are appealing their lower court defeat to the Dallas-based Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas.
The lawsuit attracted media attention in its early days, then proceeded quietly. At United Methodist News’ request, SMU issued a statement about Moore’s ruling:
“SMU is pleased that on February 8, the Dallas County District Court of Texas dismissed the legal action against the University by the South Central Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“That ruling and other previous ones make it clear that the SMU Board of Trustees has the sole authority to govern the affairs of the University and its operations in compliance with all applicable state and federal laws.”
But Arkansas Conference Bishop Gary Mueller, a member of the executive committee of the South Central Jurisdiction Mission Council, said the legal battle is just beginning.
“The Jurisdiction believes Judge Moore’s rulings were in error and we are confident in our legal and factual positions on appeal,” Mueller said.
He added: “Neither our arguments nor our evidence has changed. It’s our understanding that the court of appeals must consider the same arguments and evidence without deference to Judge Moore’s ruling dismissing the claims. We understand that it is, in essence, a fresh start.”
The South Central Jurisdiction includes annual conferences in eight states, and delegates from those annual conferences typically meet every four years as a jurisdictional conference. The jurisdiction’s Mission Council — consisting of bishops, other clergy and lay people — makes decisions between the quadrennial conference meetings.
The Mission Council unanimously supported appealing the lower court ruling, said the Rev. T. Brian Bakeman, executive director of the South Central Jurisdiction.
SMU was founded by Methodists in 1911, and the jurisdictional conference’s lawsuit stresses the school’s long legal relationship with The United Methodist Church and predecessor denominations.
The suit asserts that SMU’s board in 1924 placed all of the school’s assets in trust for the benefit of the South Central Jurisdictional Conference and that the school’s organizational documents were amended many times but always made clear the conference had ultimate control.
As recently as 1996, the suit says, SMU updated its articles of incorporation and explicitly guaranteed the jurisdictional conference the right to approve trustee appointments, campus real estate sales and updates of the articles themselves.
SMU sometimes chafed at having to deal with the jurisdictional conference, specifically during the controversy over the school’s becoming home to the George W. Bush Presidential Center. SMU ultimately did get jurisdictional conference approval in 2008 for leasing land to have a policy institute at the center.
The contentious February 2019 special General Conference of The United Methodist Church, which ended with a reinforcement of the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings and ordination of "self-avowed practicing" gay clergy, proved a turning point for SMU’s leadership.
After the denominational meeting in St. Louis, SMU President R. Gerald Turner issued a statement noting the school’s Methodist ties but also saying, “SMU is distinct from the Church.” He stressed that the school’s anti-discrimination policy protected LGBTQ people.
“We reaffirm SMU’s deep commitment to providing a welcoming community for all students, faculty and staff members and visitors,” Turner said.
In November 2019, the school’s board filed with the state of Texas amended articles of incorporation that eliminated the South Central Jurisdictional Conference’s rights as listed in the 1996 articles.
“SMU believes its Board’s actions are in compliance with the Texas Business Organizations Code and reflect the way the university is operated,” the school said in a Dec. 5, 2019, statement.
Turner told the Dallas Morning News that turmoil in The United Methodist Church, including widespread discussion of schism, was a reason for the board’s move.
“We’re trying to get this done before the church decides what kind of split they’re going to have, so that we can continue to educate everybody from all Methodist denominations and from other denominations, and people who don’t believe at all,” he said.
The South Central Jurisdictional Conference’s Mission Council promptly filed suit, saying the articles of incorporation could not be changed without the jurisdictional conference’s approval.
“By this lawsuit, the South Central Jurisdictional Conference seeks to preserve a 100-year relationship that it or its predecessors have held with SMU,” the jurisdictional conference said in a statement.
SMU responded in court filings that it changed the articles of incorporation to eliminate “antiquated language” that created the impression the jurisdictional conference owned the school. Under Texas law, the board controls the school, including having authority to change the articles, SMU’s filing said.
Jones eventually joined the suit on the conference’s side.
He is an alumnus of and former professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology, a United Methodist seminary. He was among the United Methodist bishops serving on the SMU board in late 2019, and he opposed the changes in the articles.
When he joined the suit against SMU, the board removed him as a trustee.
The suit between the conference and SMU proceeded through many court filings and various hearings, with Moore mostly siding with SMU in preliminary decisions.
She ultimately dismissed Jones’ claims and in her brief ruling of Feb. 8 this year dismissed the jurisdictional conference’s remaining claims, saying they “fail as a matter of law.”
SMU’s 42-member board of trustees continues to include United Methodist clergy and laypersons. Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference is its sole remaining bishop.
The school’s statement on Moore’s Feb. 8 ruling included this comment from Turner:
“SMU looks forward to a continued relationship with The United Methodist Church with our shared history and commitment to education, including, but not limited to, theological training for United Methodists and a wide range of students.”
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