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Court May Resolve Pastor's Breach of Employment Claim

Not all church disputes involve matters of doctrine.

Key point. Some courts are willing to resolve disputes over the termination of clergy if they can do so without any inquiry into religious doctrine.

A Pennsylvania court ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom did not prevent the civil courts from resolving pastors' breach of employment contract claims if they can do so without delving into religious doctrine or spiritual qualifications. A church hired a pastor in 1999. The pastor's status was confirmed by a written agreement in 2005 that stated, in part:

[The pastor's] call is extended [for] a period of just over two years ….

The [church] will maintain the [pastor's] pension fund at 14 percent of base salary, and provide a social security supplement at 7.65 percent of base salary, as well as the current auto allowance throughout the length of this agreement.

The [pastor] and [his wife] will continue to have the use of the parsonage throughout the length of this agreement ….

This agreement can be amended only by the unanimous consent of both parties [the pastor and church board].

In 2006, 22 members of the congregation notified the president of the church board that they demanded a meeting to discuss what they perceived as "church problems." The president of the church board informed the dissidents by letter that no such meeting would be held. Instead, a special meeting of the board was held to discuss the pastor's retirement at the end of 2006, his retirement package approved by the board totaling $21,000. However, before the pastor's retirement plans became effective, the members of congregation who opposed the pastor took control of the board and terminated the pastor's employment. This occurred prior to the end of the two-year term called for in the agreement.

The pastor sued the church for breach of contract and bad faith, and demanded damages in the amount of $77,000. The church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it was an internal church matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction.

The court conducted a hearing at which two members of the church board shared their opinions as to the basis for the pastor's dismissal. One testified that the termination was a "financial matter" while another stated that it had been based on the pastor having "damaged the spiritual welfare of the church," divided the congregation, and caused a decline in the church's membership. The court, in dismissing the pastor's lawsuit, observed:

The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is fundamentally intertwined with the church's doctrine and practice …. Invading this sacred relationship under the guise of contract law improperly interjects the court into questions of religious doctrine, polity, practice, and administration. It is precisely such conduct which is prohibited by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The pastor appealed, claiming that the underlying dispute (breach of contract) did not turn on religious doctrine or polity but sought the enforcement of a secular right through civil contract law. As a result, he asserted that the First Amendment did not bar his claim that the church breached his written employment contract. The church insisted that the resolution of the pastor's claims would "necessarily require the court to inquire into matters involving church polity, doctrine and administration, which is prohibited" by the First Amendment.

The appeals court began its opinion by observing:

The First Amendment does not exempt religious institutions from all statutes that regulate employment. For example, the First Amendment does not exempt religious institutions from laws that regulate the minimum wage or the use of child labor, even though both involve employment relationships. However, the First Amendment protects a church's right to hire, fire, promote, and assign duties to its ministers as it sees fit not because churches are exempt from all employment regulations (for they are not) but rather because judicial review of those particular employment actions could interfere with rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.

The court in this case was willing to let the pastor prosecute his breach of contract claim so long as no issues of doctrine or spiritual qualifications were implicated.

The court noted that not all disputes among members of a congregation are doctrinal disputes:

Some are simply disputes as to the meaning of agreements on wills, trusts, contracts, and property ownership. These disputes are questions of civil law and are not predicated on any religious doctrine. While it is true that parties may agree to settle their disputes according to their own agreed fashion, the question of what they agreed to, or whether they agreed at all, are not doctrinal and can be solved without intruding into the sacred precincts [quoting the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in The Presbytery of Beaver-Butler of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America v. Middlesex Presbyterian Church, 489 A.2d 1317 (1985)].

The court remanded the case back to the trial court for disposition with the stipulation that it not resolve any issues pertaining to doctrine of the spiritual qualifications of the pastor.

The court concluded that the pastor "should be afforded the opportunity to demonstrate that he can prove his case without resorting to impermissible avenues of discovery or remedies." If the pastor can demonstrate that excessive entanglement into church matters need not occur to prove his breach of contract claim, then "application of state law to his contract claim would not violate the First Amendment." On the other hand, "if the facts prove to be otherwise, a motion for summary judgment may be granted in favor of the church."

Application. Most courts have refused to get involved in internal church disputes over the dismissal of ministers on the ground that any intervention would violate the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. This case illustrates that this view is not universally held. The court in this case was willing to let the pastor prosecute his breach of contract claim so long as no issues of doctrine or spiritual qualifications were implicated. Mundie v. Christ United Church of Christ, 987 A.2d 794 (Pa. Super. 2009).

This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, November/December 2010.

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  • November 1, 2010