Key point The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A Colorado court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a pastor's lawsuit seeking additional compensation from his church on the basis of breach of contract. An ordained pastor (the "plaintiff") served as the senior pastor of a church for nearly 20 years. He sued his church for breach of contract as a result of the church's alleged failure to compensate him fully for his services as pastor since 1991. He relied on representations and assurances by the church that it would compensate him whenever it was financially able to do so. According to the lawsuit, the church had obtained substantial proceeds from the sale of church property, and as a result was obligated to perform on its assurance of compensation.
The church denied any liability on several grounds, including the fact that the pastor had not adequately performed his duties as pastor. It also argued that the pastor's breach of contract claim "arose directly out of the ministerial relationship … and therefore, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the court was precluded from exercising jurisdiction."
The trial court dismissed the case, concluding that it could not exercise jurisdiction because resolution of the claims would involve excessive government entanglement with religion. The plaintiff appealed.
A state appeals court noted that churches have autonomy in making decisions regarding their own internal affairs and that the "church autonomy doctrine prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity." Bryce v. Episcopal Church, 289 F.3d 648 (10th Cir.2002).