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Discipline of Ministers

Courts cannot intervene in ecclesiastical matters.

Key point: The civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits brought by disciplined clergy who claim that their discipline violated denominational procedures.

The Kentucky Supreme Court dismissed a minister's lawsuit alleging that his denomination violated the terms of his employment contract by failing to follow the denomination's Book of Discipline when it placed him on a forced leave of absence. In 1991, a Methodist minister sued the United Methodist Church claiming that a contractual relationship had been established between himself and the Church by virtue of the Book of Discipline which the minister characterized as the "employment manual" of the Church. He further claimed that the church violated the terms of his "employment contract" by failing to follow its Book of Discipline when it placed him on a forced leave of absence. The minister sought money damages against the Church. The Church insisted that the dispute was an ecclesiastical dispute over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction. The minister countered by claiming that the dispute was not a church dispute but rather a simple contract case. The trial court agreed with the minister, concluding that the minister had merely asked the court to decide whether or not the "secular dictates" of the Book of Discipline had been followed. An appeals court reversed this decision, and the case was appealed to the state supreme court. The supreme court began its decision by observing that first amendment's guaranty of religious freedom

permits hierarchical religious organizations to establish their own rules and regulations for internal discipline and government and to create tribunals for resolving disputes over these matters. Where this choice is exercised and ecclesiastical tribunals are created to decide disputes over the government and direction of subordinate bodies, the Constitution requires that civil courts accept their decisions as binding.

The court noted that decisions by the United States Supreme Court permit civil courts to resolve church property disputes on the basis of "neutral principles of law" (involving inspection of doctrinally neutral language in religious and legal documents). However, the court stressed that the neutral principles approach only applied to church property disputes and "should not be extended to religious controversies in the areas of church government, or order and discipline." The court continued: "This case does not involve a dispute over church property, but relates to [the minister's] status and employment as a minister of the church. It therefore concerns internal church discipline, faith, and organization, all of which are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom and law."

The minister argued that the Church's decision to place him on a leave of absence was "arbitrary" in the sense that it was made in violation of the Book of Discipline, and accordingly it was not legally valid. In rejecting this position, the court quoted from a 1976 decision of the United States Supreme Court that prohibits clergy from challenging church decisions on the basis of "arbitrariness" (which it defined as a failure by the church to follow its own internal procedures or document):

We have concluded that whether or not there is room for "marginal civil court review" under the narrow rubrics of "fraud" or "collusion" when church tribunals act in bad faith for secular purposes, no "arbitrariness" exception—in the sense of an inquiry whether the decisions of the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical church complied with church laws and regulations—is consistent with the constitutional mandate that civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law. For civil courts to analyze whether the ecclesiastical actions of a church judicatory are in that sense "arbitrary" must inherently entail inquiry into the procedures that canon or ecclesiastical law supposedly require the church adjudicatory to follow, or else into the substantive criteria by which they are supposedly to decide the ecclesiastical question. But this is exactly the inquiry that the first amendment prohibits; recognition of such an exception would undermine the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry, and that a civil court must accept the ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals as it finds them. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 423 U.S. 696 (1976).

The court acknowledged that the United States Supreme Court has left open the question of whether disciplined clergy can sue their church as a result of decisions that are based on "fraud or collusion." However, the court concluded (quoting from an earlier federal decision):

This court finds no basis for intervention in the instant case. There is no showing of such egregious action by the hierarchical authorities of the United Methodist Church to justify court interference, if such interference is even permitted under Milivojevich [quoted above]. Assuming, without deciding, that review is allowed for fraud or collusion, it is still only allowed for fraud or collusion of the most serious nature undermining the very authority of the decision-making body. Certainly there is no claim or showing of such fraud or collusion here. And we emphasize that we do not hold that such great fraud would be a basis for court interference. We merely state that possibility has been left open by the [United States] Supreme Court, but further state there is no showing whatever in this case that such egregious conduct occurred.

The court further observed that "[i]n determining the [minister's] claim in the present case, it would invariably require interpretation of provisions in the Book of Discipline that are highly subjective, spiritual, and ecclesiastical in nature. Such [a lawsuit] necessarily involves interpretation of the minister's occupational qualifications, and therefore forecloses any inquiry by the civil courts." Music v. United Methodist Church, 864 S.W.2d 286 (Ky. 1993).

See Also: Termination

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  • July 1, 1994

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