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Clergy - Part 2

Removal

Can two dismissed co-pastors sue their church and denomination for breach of contract, defamation, and emotional distress? No, concluded an Ohio state appeals court. The co-pastors (who were husband and wife) were hired by a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pursuant to a contract specifying that their "ministry shall be terminated upon ninety days notice by either party." The co-pastors filed a lawsuit following their termination. They alleged that (1) the church had assured them both orally and in writing that they would be retained as co-pastors for "seven to ten years," and that their termination violated this assurance; (2) the denomination published defamatory remarks concerning their ministerial conduct and financial misdealings; and (3) the church caused them severe emotional distress by having them removed from before the congregation be police officers. The church and denomination filed a "motion to dismiss," claiming that the court had no legal authority to resolve a purely internal church dispute. A trial court granted the motion to dismiss the case, and the fired co-pastors appealed. The appeals court acknowledged that a dismissal of a lawsuit is an extraordinary action that is appropriate only if it appears beyond a reasonable doubt that a plaintiff has alleged no facts which would entitle him or her to relief. The court concluded that this standard was satisfied in the present case. It began its opinion by noting that the United States Supreme Court "has established the general rule that religious controversies are not a proper subject of civil court inquiry, and that a civil court must accept ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals as it finds them." Applying this test, the court concluded that all of the former co-pastors' claims involved "internal church discipline governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law" since "review of subjective judgments by religious officers and bodies, such as involuntary termination of co-pastors, necessarily requires inquiry into ecclesiastical matters." Civil courts "cannot constitutionally intervene in such a dispute." The same logic applied to the claim of defamation, since such a claim would require the courts to "inquire into the truth or falsity of the statements made" by church and denominational officers and would "require review of subjective judgments made by religious officers and bodies concerning [the former co-pastors'] conduct of the pastorate and financial misdealings. Inquiry would be ecclesiastical in nature and constitutionally prohibited." Finally, the court rejected the former co-pastors' claim of emotional distress resulting from their removal from the congregation by police officers. It noted that the civil courts could not inquire into the propriety of the co-pastors' dismissal, and therefore their church "could use any legal means to prevent them from gaining access to church property" (including use of police officers). Salzgaber v. First Christian Church (Ohio App. unpublished opinion 1989).

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  • May 1, 1990

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