• Key point. The civil courts are compelled by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom to refrain from interfering with the internal decisions of hierarchical churches, including decisions regarding the discipline or dismissal of clergy.
• Key point. Some courts have concluded that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents them from interfering with the relationship between a church and its ministers, and this rule bars church liability on the basis of negligence for inadequately screening or supervising clergy.
The Colorado Supreme Court threw out a lawsuit brought by a woman alleging that her church acted improperly and unlawfully when it dismissed her after she made complaints of sexual harassment and child molestation against another minister. The woman alleged that between 1968 and 1975, when she was a minor, her stepfather committed various acts of sexual assault against her when they resided together. Her stepfather was a minister at the time, and later became president of his denomination. The woman pursued ministerial studies and was licensed as a minister. After serving as a minister in the State of Washington she moved to the Denver area to start a new church. She later learned that her stepfather, with whom she had severed all ties, was also pastoring a church in the Denver area. She learned that her stepfather was allegedly sexually harassing women church employees and a woman parishioner in his Denver church. She reported this alleged harassment, as well as the sexual abuse she had suffered from her stepfather as a minor, to denominational officers. In response, the stepfather filed charges with the denomination against the woman, claiming that her allegations were false and demanding a full investigation. After an investigation, denominational officers revoked the woman's license and denied her the opportunity to open a new church. The woman responded by filing a lawsuit against her stepfather, and her denomination, alleging several theories of liability including (1) illegal retaliation by denominational officials in response to her charges of sexual harassment, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; (2) breach of fiduciary duty by denominational officials; (3) breach of contract; and (4) intentional interference with contract. A trial court dismissed most of these claims on the ground that it lacked jurisdiction to resolve an ecclesiastical dispute. A state appeals court concurred with this result, and the woman appealed to the state supreme court.