Key point 8-24. A reference letter is a letter that evaluates the qualifications and suitability of a person for a particular position. Churches, like other employers, often use reference letters to screen new employees and volunteers. Churches often are asked to provide reference letters on current or former workers. The law generally provides employers with important protections when responding to a reference letter request. However, liability may still arise in some cases, such as if the employer acts with malice in drafting a reference letter.
Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A Texas court ruled that the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" and the "ministerial exception" did not prevent it from resolving various legal claims brought by a former church employee against the church. A woman (the "plaintiff") was dismissed from her position as Elementary Ministries Director at a Presbyterian church. She sent a demand letter to the church asserting that she had been terminated for making allegations of sexual harassment against a church elder. She later signed a "Confidential Separation Agreement and Release" under the terms of which the church paid her $25,000 and agreed that she could "classify the end of the employment relationship as a resignation, rather than a termination … for purposes of … future employment offers."
The agreement included a confidentiality clause applicable to the plaintiff and a provision that "in the event that she is asked about her separation of employment, she may reply only with the words 'we have reached an amicable parting,' but will not otherwise indicate the nature of the resolution of these matters." In addition, the parties agreed not to "disparage" the other.