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 civil courts are barred by the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" from resolving church disputes over the dismissal of ministers. In September of 2013 a pastor telephoned several church members to call a meeting for that evening. During the meeting the pastor confessed that he had taken money from the church to pay expenses for his sick mother. He asked the members if they wanted to retain him as pastor, and according to one of the attendees, most of the members present at the meeting agreed to forgive him and retain him.
One member disagreed, claiming that members had not received proper notice of the meeting. Ultimately, the pastor decided that a second meeting should be held the next evening. At the meeting the members again voted to retain him. The pastor believed that any issues related to his misappropriation of money had been resolved during these two meetings. But the following Saturday, as he arrived at church to prepare for the Sunday morning service, he was handed a letter stating that the church was terminating him for embezzling church funds. The letter was signed by two of the three board members listed in the church's 2010 articles of incorporation filed with the Texas Secretary of State.
The pastor sued the two board members (the "defendants"), claiming that they had changed the church's locks and unlawfully excluded him. He asked the court to issue an injunction restraining the defendants from interfering with his duties as minister. He claimed that neither defendant had the power to fire him because (1) one of the defendants had resigned from the church board, and the other had been removed, and (2) the church's bylaws did not confer upon the directors the authority to terminate the minister.
The trial court determined that the two meetings called by the pastor did not comply with the church bylaws' notice requirement, and that a special meeting complying with the bylaws' notice requirement should be held. The pastor appealed.
A state appeals court noted that the so-called "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine" prevents the civil courts from "delving into matters focused on theological controversy, church discipline, ecclesiastical government, or the conformity of the members of a church to the standard of morals required of them." The court noted that the church bylaws "contain provisions regarding the notice required for special meetings of members and directors, requiring that seven days' notice be given at a regular worship service of the congregation or printed in the bulletin for special meetings of members." The court noted that "no provision in the bylaws governs the basis for or manner in which a minister may be terminated," and that "the bylaws did not specifically authorize directors to remove the minister."
The court concluded: "The bylaws contain no provisions regarding termination of a minister. Thus, we cannot merely construe the bylaws under neutral principles of law to resolve the parties' dispute … . Accordingly, we hold the trial court lacked jurisdiction over this dispute under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine."
What This Means For Churches:
The court referred to a recent ruling by the Texas Supreme Court, Masterson v. Diocese of Northwest Texas, 422 S.W.3d 594 (Tex. 2013). In Masterson, the Texas Supreme Court concluded that "whether a church's vote to disassociate from a diocese complied with the church's bylaws was reviewable using neutral principles of law to determine whether the church or the diocese owned the church building." Masterson "reaffirmed that courts should defer to religious entities' decisions on ecclesiastical and church polity questions," but held that "courts are to apply neutral principles of law to issues such as land titles, trusts, and corporate formation, governance, and dissolution, even when religious entities are involved." After Masterson, "it is unclear whether the propriety of the termination of a minister, which older cases seemed to suggest was a categorically unreviewable ecclesiastical question, may now be reviewed applying neutral principles of law in cases in which the question turns on the substance of a document to which neutral principles of law may be applied, such as an incorporated church's bylaws."
In this case the church bylaws were silent on how the pastor could be removed, and so the court could not apply neutral principles of law to interpret them. Anderson v. Truelove, 446 S.W.3d 87 (Tex. App. 2014).