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 Maryland court ruled that it was barred by the "ministerial exception" from resolving a wrongful termination lawsuit that a dismissed minister filed against his former church.
A pastor (the "plaintiff") was hired as pastor of a Methodist church in 2009. His pastoral position was subject to a yearly employment contract, which was renewed in 2010, 2011, and 2012. At the end of 2012, the plaintiff's employment was terminated by the regional conference of the Methodist Church because it had "lost faith" in his spiritual leadership.
The plaintiff thereafter sued his church and Conference alleging wrongful termination based on his refusal to commit certain unlawful acts in connection with the administration of funds from a trust of which the church was a beneficiary. A year and a half before the plaintiff's termination, the church was informed that it was going to receive a bequest from a trust in the amount of $1,225,000. The trust provided that one half of the bequest was to be used for the general operation and maintenance of the church, while the other half was to be used for the upkeep of the church's cemetery.
The plaintiff, who before becoming pastor had worked as a financial manager at IBM for nearly 25 years and as the treasurer and chief financial officer of another Methodist Conference, was chosen by the church to administer the bequest. According to his lawsuit, the plaintiff quickly discovered that the church sold its cemetery in 2009 and no longer maintained a cemetery fund. He "determined that it would be a breach of trust—as well as fraud and tax evasion—for the church to accept the portion of the bequest relating to the upkeep of the cemetery." As a result, he advised the church's board of trustees to notify the bank that was serving as trustee that it no longer owned the cemetery and to ask the bank for guidance. But despite this advice, the vice chairman of the board of trustees instructed the plaintiff to request the full amount of the bequest from the bank and to deposit it into the church's general operating account. The plaintiff refused to follow these instructions and, in August of 2012, took his concerns about accepting the portion of the bequest that was meant for the cemetery fund to a Conference officer who informed him that his pastoral employment at the church was being terminated.
The trial judge dismissed the lawsuit on the ground that the plaintiff's claims "are fundamentally connected to issues of church doctrine and governance and would require court review of the church's motives for the discharge which is precluded by the ministerial exception." The plaintiff appealed. While he conceded that the ministerial exception bars secular courts from hearing disputes over church doctrine, he insisted that courts are not precluded from resolving employment disputes and contract claims like his that are purely secular and not rooted in religious beliefs. "The circuit court erred," he claimed, "because it opined that the immunity provided by the ministerial exception is absolute."
The plaintiff also noted that the trial judge had dismissed the case without allowing any "discovery" (interrogatories, depositions, and so on), and he asserted that claims like his should not be dismissed unless the court first permits a factual record to be developed through discovery and then determines, based on that record, that the claims would substantially entangle the courts in religious doctrine.
The church and Conference (the "church defendants") argued that the trial judge correctly applied the ministerial exception and thus did not err in dismissing the case. Quoting the United States Supreme Court's decision in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. E.E.O.C., 132 S.Ct. 694 (2012), the church defendants asserted that the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom "prevents the government from interfering with the freedom of religious groups to select their own ministers." This principle is known as the "ministerial exception." The church defendants acknowledged that the Supreme Court's holding in Hosanna-Tabor was limited to precluding ministers from bringing claims of employment discrimination against their religious employers. However, they pointed out that other courts have extended the application of the ministerial exception to also preclude claims of wrongful discharge like the plaintiff's. The church defendants cited cases from numerous other jurisdictions, both state and federal, that have applied the ministerial exception to wrongful discharge claims. In sum, the church defendants argued that the plaintiff's claims would have required the court to engage in an impermissible inquiry into the church's doctrine and self-governance by in effect deciding whether or not the plaintiff was actually terminated for the stated reason that the church had "lost faith" in his spiritual leadership.
The church defendants further claimed that the trial judge had been correct in not permitting "pre-dismissal discovery." They contended that the lawsuit was sufficient on its face to demonstrate that the claims were precluded by the ministerial exception.
Application of the ministerial exception
The appeals court began its opinion by noting:
Two elements must be present for the ministerial exception to preclude a secular court from obtaining subject matter jurisdiction over a claim brought by an employee against his religious institution employer: First, the employee making the claim must qualify as a "minister"; and second, the claim must be the type of claim which would substantially entangle the court in the church's doctrinal decision-making and internal self-governance.
The court concluded that the plaintiff met the first element, and, with regard to the second element, "it is also clear that … wrongful discharge claims like the plaintiff's are precluded by the ministerial exception. Therefore, we shall hold that the circuit court did not err in granting the church defendants' motion to dismiss."
The court conceded that the Supreme Court has not addressed whether the ministerial exception applies to wrongful discharge claims as well as employment discrimination claims, but it noted that many other state and federal courts have said that it does and the court chose to follow those decisions.
The court concluded:
The [trial] court could not have heard the plaintiff's wrongful discharge claim without having to make a determination as to whether he was terminated in retaliation for refusing to obey the vice chairman's instruction regarding the portion of the bequest that was meant for the cemetery fund, or because the church had "lost faith" in his spiritual leadership. Such a determination is of the precise type that the ministerial exception precludes secular courts from making.
The court also rejected the plaintiff's argument that the trial court's "pre-discovery" dismissal of his claims was improper. It noted that other courts had affirmed pre-discovery dismissals of claims barred by the ministerial exception in cases where it was clear based on the face of the complaint that an inquiry into religious matters would have been necessary. It concluded that
we are currently presented with such a case, one in which the church has said all along that its decision to terminate the plaintiff's employment was motivated entirely by reasons of faith. Therefore, discovery was not necessary for the trial court to properly determine that the plaintiff's claim was barred by the ministerial exception, and, as such, we hold that the court did not err in granting the [church defendants'] motion to dismiss.
What this means for churches
This case is important for two reasons.
First, it illustrates the view of most courts that the ministerial exception bars the civil courts not only from resolving employment discrimination claims involving clergy and religious employers, but also wrongful termination claims not involving allegations of discrimination.
Second, the court rejected the plaintiff's argument that "pre-discovery" motions to dismiss are improper and that the courts always should allow clergy to pursue evidence by means of depositions, interrogatories, and other discovery techniques before ruling on a motion to dismiss. The court concluded if the application of the ministerial exception is obvious from the face of a civil lawsuit, then a pre-discovery motion to dismiss is appropriate. This is an important point, since it means that employment disputes between churches and clergy may be dismissed soon after a lawsuit is filed without the necessity of pursuing expensive and time-consuming discovery. 2016 WL 1065884 (Md. App. 2016).