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Appeals Court Barred by First Amendment for Minister’s Terminated Retirement Benefits
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Key point. Breach of contract claims by dismissed ministers, no matter how meritorious, cannot be resolved by the civil courts if doing so would require an interpretation of religious doctrine, or involves a claim that a decision by the highest ecclesiastical tribunal of a hierarchical denomination did not comply with the church's laws and regulations.

A federal appeals court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment religion clauses from resolving a dismissed minister's claim that a denominational pension board acted improperly in terminating his retirement benefits pursuant to denominational rules when he was "defrocked" and ceased to be a minister in good standing. An ordained minister (the "plaintiff") began collecting benefits in 2009 after fulfilling the three conditions identified in his human resource manual for eligibility: (1) he had remained as a member in good standing of the denomination, (2) completed 10 years of full-time paid service for the denomination, and (3) had reached or exceeded retirement age.

The plaintiff's retirement benefits were terminated for not "remaining as a member of good standing of the denomination" after being defrocked and dismissed from the denomination. The plaintiff sued the denomination, claiming that the termination of his retirement benefits constituted a breach of contract and a violation of the denomination's covenant of good faith and fair dealing. A federal district court ruled that the lawsuit turned on an "interpretation of what constitutes a 'member in good standing' under denominational rules of governance, custom, and faith" and any ruling by the court would violate the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.

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