• Key point. Employees who engage in offensive contacts and language of a sexual nature with other employees may expose their employer to liability for "hostile environment" sexual harassment. Churches may be liable like any other employer for such acts.
A North Carolina appeals court ruled that the first amendment did not prevent it from resolving a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by three female church employees against their church and denominational agencies. Three female church employees (the "plaintiffs") sued their Methodist church and various Methodist agencies as a result of the sexual misconduct of a pastor. The lawsuit alleged that the pastor "committed inappropriate, unwelcome, offensive and nonconsensual acts of a sexual nature against the plaintiffs, variously hugging, kissing and touching them, and made inappropriate, unwelcome, offensive and nonconsensual statements of a sexually suggestive nature to them." The plaintiffs further alleged that the pastor's actions amounted to sexual harassment and assault and battery, causing them emotional distress, embarrassment, humiliation, and damage to their reputations and career potential. The lawsuit further alleged that the local church and Methodist agencies "knew or should have known" of the pastor's propensity for sexual harassment as well as assault and battery upon female employees and that they failed to take any actions to warn or protect the plaintiffs from his wrongful activity. The trial court dismissed all of plaintiffs' claims against the local church and Methodist agencies. It reasoned that the power to discipline and assign or remove a Methodist minister is within the principle of "itinerant general superintendency and the exclusive power of episcopacy," and that the power of a secular court to "second guess that power to assign or remove clergy or to second guess the discipline of clergy is an intrusion into matters of church governance and discipline and would constitute an excessive entanglement between church and state in violation of the first amendment." The plaintiffs appealed.