Key point 9-07. The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A Kentucky appeals court ruled that the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine," which bars the courts from resolving issues of internal church governance, did not prevent a church's preschool director from suing the church for disability discrimination. In 2000, a woman (the "plaintiff") was named director of a preschool and daycare center operated by a church. In her role as director, the plaintiff oversaw operation of the center on a daily basis; she was responsible for purchasing food, classroom materials, and toys using an account set up specifically for the center and separate from the church's operating accounts; and she managed the center's employees, including all scheduling, discipline, training, and payroll tasks in accordance with the center's employee handbook, which was written separately from any church directive or policy.
As a condition for receiving federal education funds, the center was prohibited from posting religious materials and artifacts in the classrooms. Throughout her tenure, the plaintiff had no association with the church, had no religious duties, and made no religious decisions of any kind.
Beginning in June of 2009, the plaintiff was supervised by the church's newly appointed head pastor. The pastor did not attend functions, teach, or have any connection with the center apart from his supervisory role over the church. He indicated that the plaintiff ran the center "in isolation" from the church, did not have a religious education, was not a minister, did not teach the Methodist faith, and was not involved with the church's governance or any church committee.