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Issues that affect ministers and churches
‘Ministerial Exception’ Prevents Court from Resolving Dismissed Minister’s Wrongful Termination Lawsuit
Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

A Maryland court ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a wrongful termination lawsuit that a dismissed minister filed against his former church. A pastor (the "plaintiff") was hired as pastor of a Methodist church in 2009. His pastoral position was subject to a yearly employment contract, which was renewed in 2010, 2011, and 2012. At the end of 2012, the plaintiff's employment was terminated by the regional conference of the Methodist Church because it had "lost faith" in his spiritual leadership.

The plaintiff thereafter sued his church and Conference alleging wrongful termination based on his refusal to commit certain unlawful acts in connection with the administration of funds from a trust of which the church was a beneficiary. A year and a half before the plaintiff's termination, the church was informed that it was going to receive a bequest from a trust in the amount of $1,225,000. The trust provided that one half of the bequest was to be used for the general operation and maintenance of the church, while the other half was to be used for the upkeep of the church's cemetery.

The plaintiff, who before becoming pastor had worked as a financial manager at IBM for nearly 25 years and as the treasurer and chief financial officer of another Methodist Conference, was chosen by the church to administer the bequest. According to his lawsuit, the plaintiff quickly discovered that the church sold its cemetery in 2009 and no longer maintained a cemetery fund. He "determined that it would be a breach of trust—as well as fraud and tax evasion—for the church to accept the portion of the bequest relating to the upkeep of the cemetery." As a result, he advised the church's board of trustees to notify the bank that was serving as trustee that it no longer owned the cemetery and to ask the bank for guidance. But despite this advice, the vice chairman of the board of trustees instructed the plaintiff to request the full amount of the bequest from the bank and to deposit it into the church's general operating account. The plaintiff refused to follow these instructions and, in August of 2012, took his concerns about accepting the portion of the bequest that was meant for the cemetery fund to a Conference officer who informed him that his pastoral employment at the church was being terminated.

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