Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
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.

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