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Ministerial Exemption Prevents Court from Resolving Lawsuit

Texas court claims they’re unable to resolve wrongful dismissal claim.

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

A Texas court ruled that the so-called "ministerial exception" prevented it from resolving a dismissed pastor's lawsuit claiming that he had been wrongfully dismissed by his church. In 2009, a pastor entered into an employment agreement with a church. The agreement provided that the pastor would serve as pastor of the church for a five-year period with the possibility of two additional five-year terms. In 2011 the church terminated the pastor's employment.

The pastor sued the church, and both state and national denominational agencies (the "church defendants") for breach of contract and infliction of emotional distress. He sought damages for loss of future and past wages, punitive damages, and attorney's fees. The trial court dismissed the pastor's lawsuit on the basis of the "ministerial exception" which holds that the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom prohibits the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and clergy.

A state appeals court affirmed the trial court's dismissal of the case. The court noted that the First Amendment's guaranty of religious freedom "precludes, among other things, government action that burdens the free exercise of religion by encroaching on the church's ability to manage its internal affairs." To enforce this constitutional provision, "the courts have utilized the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine and the ministerial exception." The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine "prohibits civil courts from exercising jurisdiction over matters concerning theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of the church to the standard of morals required of them." The ministerial exception "provides that civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to decide cases concerning employment decisions by religious institutions concerning a member of the clergy or an employee in a ministerial position." The court noted that the United States Supreme Court unanimously affirmed the ministerial exception in 2012. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012).

The court concluded: "The pastor claims that the church harmed him by terminating his employment. To determine the efficacy of his claims, the courts would have to decide whether the termination of his employment was wrongful or premature. The free exercise clause of the Constitution prohibits the courts from reviewing employment decisions regarding ministers." The court quoted from the Supreme Court's decision in the Hosanna-Tabor case:

Requiring a church to accept or retain an unwanted minister, or punishing a church for failing to do so, intrudes upon more than a mere employment decision. Such action interferes with the internal governance of the church, depriving the church of control over the selection of those who will personify its beliefs. By imposing an unwanted minister, the state infringes the Free Exercise Clause, which protects a religious group's right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments. According the state the power to determine which individuals will minister to the faithful also violates the Establishment Clause, which prohibits government involvement in such ecclesiastical decisions.

The court noted that if it were to second guess the church's decision to terminate the pastor it would "deprive the church of its right to shape its own faith and mission by imposing an unwanted minister … . Further, any monetary award by the court would operate as a penalty on the church for terminating an unwanted minister. Clearly, failure to extend Hosanna-Tabor to the present case would result in the untenable consequence of the court establishing religion and preventing the free exercise thereof in violation of the First Amendment."

What This Means For Churches:

This case illustrates the unwillingness of the civil courts to review decisions by churches to terminate ministers. It also demonstrates that this unwillingness extends not only to wrongful termination claims, but also related claims including defamation and emotional distress. Reese v. General Assembly of Faith Cumberland Presbyterian Church in America, 425 S.W.3d 625 (Tex. Ap. 2014).

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  • December 22, 2014

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