Mike Stone, the former chair of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee, has filed a defamation lawsuit against Russell Moore, the former president of the denomination’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission who stepped down this year.
Stone, who pastors the Emmanuel Baptist in Blackshear, Georgia, is suing Moore for for “claims of defamation, false light invasion of privacy, and emotional distress.”
According to The Tennessean, lawyers for Stone filed the lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court for Middle Tennessee. The complaint centers on leaked letters written by Moore, who resigned as ERLC president in May.
In the first letter from February 2020 leaked to Religion News Service in May, Moore alleged that the SBC Executive Committee wanted him to live in “psychological terror” and that he and his family had endured unfair treatment by denominational leaders. The letter came amid the ERLC’s promotion of racial justice initiatives and calls for the denomination to improve its handling of sexual abuse allegations.
Another letter leaked to the media was written by Moore to then-SBC President J.D. Greear in May, alleging that SBC leaders mishandled a “crisis of sexual abuse.”
“You and I both know leadership in the Executive Committee, at the trustee level with Mike Stone and his allies, and at the staff level by former Executive Vice-President Augie Boto, have stonewalled many attempts at reform for the sake of the sexually abused,” Moore wrote in the letter.
Stone, who has been a member of the SBC Executive Committee since 2014 and served as its chairman from June 2018 through June 2020, claims that Moore “began a malicious, intentional, and egregious campaign to harm” him by “defaming him with the text of two letters strategically concealed from general distribution within the ERLC and the SBC.”
Stone, represented by the Brentwood-based Cole Law Group, alleges that Moore’s letters directly led to his loss, harmed his overall reputation and “diminished his future earning capacity.” He’s seeking $750,000 in damages.
“Plaintiff’s business operations have already been negatively impacted by Defendant’s untruthful statements due to a decreased trust and confidence in Plaintiff in the religious community, and the Plaintiff’s pastoral efforts will undoubtedly suffer decreased church attendance and a reduction in donations and honorariums because of Defendant’s statements which are untruthful and have cast Plaintiff in a false light,” the lawsuit alleges.
At the time Moore wrote his letters, the SBC Executive Committee, headed by Stone, had scrutinized the ERLC amid concerns from within the denomination about Moore’s leadership. Some had threatened to withhold donations from the SBC Cooperative Program, which in part funds the commission.
At the time, the task force also said its findings showed “considerable conversation” continued in the SBC “as to the effectiveness and efficiency of the ERLC’s current structure in addressing public policy concerns.”
In his lawsuit, Stone claims that Moore’s letters were retaliation for his role in chairing the study.
Shortly after the release of the letters in June, Stone told The Christian Post that he did not recognize the SBC that Moore described and that he had mischaracterized Southern Baptists.
“The accusation that a special 2020 ERLC Task Force was a unilateral action on my part is blatantly and provably false,” Stone said. “This attack is a deflection from the fact that Russell’s leadership of the ERLC has been an ongoing source of division and distraction for Southern Baptists.”