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Lutheran Minister's Wrongful Termination Suit Dismissed Due to 'Ministerial Exception'

Key point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents the civil courts from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.

A Michigan court ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a wrongful termination lawsuit brought by a dismissed minister against the church that dismissed him. A Lutheran pastor's employment was terminated after serving as pastor of a church (the "defendant") for seven years. The pastor (the "plaintiff") sued his former church, claiming that it had wrongfully terminated his employment in violation of the constitution of his denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS). The plaintiff requested that the trial court order the defendant to reinstate him as its pastor, order the defendant to remove any reference to his termination, and order the restoration of his rights under his employment agreement with the defendant. The trial court summarily dismissed the plaintiff's claims, and he appealed.

A state appeals court agreed that the plaintiff's claims had to be dismissed. The appeals court referenced the United States Supreme Court's decision in 2012, in which the Court unanimously ruled that the First Amendment religion clauses prevent the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012).

The Michigan court concluded that the plaintiff "is asking this court to do exactly what the United States Supreme Court said courts should not, i.e., impose an unwanted minister on a church." It quoted the following excerpt from the Hosanna-Tabor case:

The members of a religious group put their faith in the hands of their ministers. 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.

What This Means For Churches:

This case illustrates the reach of the ministerial exception. Not only did the ministerial exception bar the court from resolving a wrongful termination claim by a dismissed minister, but it also barred consideration of the plaintiff's claim that the church violated denominational procedures in dismissing him. Christ Lutheran Church, 877 N.W.2d 178 (Mich. App. 2015).

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  • October 24, 2016