Key point 2-04.2. 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 appeals court ruled that a dismissed pastor was not barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from suing his former church for breach of contract so long as a resolution of the dispute would not require the court to inquire into religious doctrine or polity. A church hired a pastor in 1999, but did not enter into a written employment agreement with him until 2005. The employment agreement contained a number of provisions, including an employment term of two years. The agreement specified that it could be amended with "only the unanimous consent of both the pastor and the church." In 2006, several church members became dissatisfied with the pastor's performance, which resulted in a congregational vote to terminate his employment contract.
The former pastor sued the church for breach of contract, and sought $77,000 in damages. The church asserted that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom barred the civil courts from intervening in internal church disputes, and therefore the lawsuit had to be dismissed. The trial court conducted a hearing to determine whether the case could proceed. The former pastor and chairman of the church board testified that the dismissal was financially motivated. But other church leaders testified that the termination was rooted in the former pastor's "damaging the spiritual welfare of the church … members were divided and membership had left, membership was dwindling."