Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
The First Amendment and Church Employment Disputes
Courts are generally barred from resolving ministers’ employment claims.

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 Massachusetts court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a minister's claim that his dismissal was unlawful. An Episcopal priest (the "plaintiff") served as an interim priest until a new bishop was appointed for the diocese. The new bishop considered the plaintiff's criminal record, information revealed in a background check, information the plaintiff volunteered about his previous employment, and knowledge of the plaintiff's conduct as a priest to determine that the plaintiff could serve only as a supply, substitute, or assistant priest but not as an interim priest, priest-in-charge, or rector within the diocese. The plaintiff thereafter served various parishes in the diocese as a supply or assistant priest. The bishop later withdrew the plaintiff's license to serve as a priest on the basis of complaints about the plaintiff's conduct and performance; improper attempts by the plaintiff to obtain additional compensation from a church; inappropriate email communications from the plaintiff that were intercepted by the diocese; and other unspecified information obtained about the plaintiff's behavior.

The plaintiff sued the diocese, claiming that he had been removed from his position as an interim priest, and denied any administrative or interim positions in the diocese since that time. He further claimed that he had been removed as a priest because of his efforts to pursue an audit of the church's finances, and his filing of a written complaint with the Internal Revenue Service. He also claimed that his dismissal as a minister was due in part to unlawful "retaliation" against him for reporting child abuse. Specifically, he argued that he observed a church member transporting boy scouts in his motor vehicle though his driver's license had been revoked or suspended for a conviction involving the member's drunk driving and killing of a child with his vehicle. The plaintiff claimed that after reporting to the vestry and the diocese and being "rebuked," he made a report to the local police pursuant to the state child abuse reporting law. He argued that the reporting law protects mandatory reporters of child abuse from retaliation by their employer for making a report of child abuse, and that the diocese violated this prohibition by revoking his ministerial status.

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