Recent Developments

Issues that affect ministers and churches
First Amendment Leaves Room for Employee Lawsuits
D.C. court of appeal rules religious freedom doesn't bar a pastor from suing for unpaid compensation.
Washington, D.C.
Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.

A District of Columbia court of appeals ruled that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom did not bar a pastor from suing her church for payment of the compensation the church had agreed to pay. In 2004, a minister (the "plaintiff") was employed by a church through the first in a series of one-year contracts. When she became pastor, the church had low enrollment, it had defaulted on its second mortgage, and it had been in default for two years. The plaintiff managed to refinance the mortgage and obtained $79,000 from the refinancing.

The church paid the plaintiff in yearly contracts during her first three years as pastor. However, because of the church's financial difficulties, in her fourth year, she agreed to receive her salary and housing allowance on a payment plan, rather than in the amounts and on the schedule previously agreed upon. She received payments in accordance with the payment plan until April 2008. She did not receive any payment for her services in 2009.

The plaintiff sued the church, claiming that it owed her $39,200 under terms of the contract covering her final year of services at the church. After hearing all the evidence, the trial court concluded that the pastor had "established by a preponderance of the evidence that this is a straightforward contract case, uncomplicated by ecclesiastical considerations." The church appealed, claiming that the dispute was an ecclesiastical matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction.

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