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Court Barred by the Ecclesiastical Abstention Doctrine from Resolving a Pastor's Employment Dispute

Court concluded it could not interfere in matters of ecclesiastical polity by determining whether the defendants acted appropriately in handling the plaintiff's employment.

Last Reviewed: March 15, 2021

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 Michigan court ruled that it was barred by the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine from resolving a pastor's employment dispute with his church and denomination.

An ordained Lutheran minister (the "plaintiff") sued his church, a member of the church board, and a regional denominational agency and one of its officers, claiming that the defendants wrongfully attempted to oust him as pastor through forced resignation, which he claims led to his "blacklisting" in the church and an inability to practice his profession as a Lutheran pastor. He asserts that the defendants' wrongful conduct brought about his placement on "restricted status" on the denomination's synodical roster and caused damage to his reputation in the congregation and the entire denomination, along with embarrassment, humiliation, mental pain and suffering, loss of employment, and monetary loss. The trial court dismissed all of the plaintiff's claims, concluding that it could not interfere in matters of ecclesiastical polity by determining whether the defendants acted appropriately in handling the plaintiff's employment.

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in summarily dismissing his complaint against the defendants.

The appellate court's ruling

The appeals court began its ruling by referring to the "ecclesiastical abstention doctrine":

It is well settled that courts, both federal and state, are severely circumscribed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution … in resolution of disputes between a church and its members… . Whenever the court must stray into questions of religious doctrine or ecclesiastical polity the court loses jurisdiction. Religious doctrine refers to ritual, liturgy of worship and tenets of the faith. Polity refers to organization and form of government of the church. Under the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine … civil courts may not redetermine the correctness of an interpretation of canonical text or some decision relating to government of the religious polity (quoting Pilgrim's Rest Baptist Church v. Pearson, 872 N.W.2d 16 (Mich. App. 2015)).

The plaintiff insisted that his claims could be resolved by applying neutral principles of law and without considering matters of ecclesiastical doctrine or polity. The court disagreed. It referred to the Pilgrim's Rest case (quoted above). In Pilgrim's Rest, a dispute arose in a congregation between the pastor's supporters and opponents with respect to whether to retain him as their pastor after it was discovered that he had authorized a raise for himself, used church credit cards, and paid himself monetary honorariums without the authorization of the board.

After an investigation revealed that he had allegedly embezzled funds from the church, the board suspended the pastor and sued him for conversion of church funds. A state appeals court concluded that it could resolve the church's conversion claim because it would not require the court to resolve the issue based on religious doctrine or polity. But the court concluded that dismissal of the pastor's counterclaims for breach of contract, fraud, tortious interference with a contract, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy was proper, where the pleadings referred to the employment contract between the pastor and the church and involved "the provision of his services as pastor to the church, which is the essence of the church's constitutionally protected function."

The court also cited a previous federal appeals court ruling involving a pastor's lawsuit against his church challenging his forced retirement. He alleged fraud and misrepresentation, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and breach of contract, claiming that his church had improperly applied provisions of the church rules and law, misrepresented the minister's relationships at various churches, and "misled and misguided various units of the denomination in bringing about his early retirement." The appeals court affirmed the dismissal of the pastor's complaint, concluding that he effectively sought "civil court review of subjective judgments made by religious officials and bodies," which the court could not constitutionally intervene in. The court explained:

The "neutral principles" doctrine has never been extended to religious controversies in the areas of church government, order and discipline, nor should it be. The claim here relates to the plaintiff's status and employment as a minister of the church. It therefore concerns internal church discipline, faith, and organization, all of which are governed by ecclesiastical rule, custom, and law. Hutchison v. Thomas, 789 F2d 392 (6th Cir. 1986).

The Michigan appellate court concluded:

Applying these principles here, we likewise conclude that the trial court lacked subject matter jurisdiction over plaintiff's complaint, which similarly involves claims brought by a minister against his church and church members and focuses on his status and employment as the pastor of [the church], his presence on the synodical roster, and the alleged wrongful treatment by members of his church in an effort to oust him. His tort and breach of contract claims arose in the context of [the church's] decision whether to retain him as its pastor and the [denomination's] decision whether to retain him as a minister on the synodical roster. Resolution of these claims would necessarily require the trial court to inquire into the propriety of those decisions and defendants' conduct relative to those decisions, which clearly relate to internal church matters, including church discipline, church governance, and plaintiff's employment as a Lutheran pastor. These issues would require the court to impermissibly stray into ecclesiastical polity.

The plaintiff claimed that the church defendants violated the church bylaws by discussing his employment status without giving "the requisite prior notice to the church members or following the requisite protocol" to remove a pastor by vote of the members, instead attempting to force him to resign. The court concluded that even if true, it could not review these claims since to do so it would be required "to determine if the church violated its own constitution and protocol, thereby impermissibly engaging in and interfering with matters of ecclesiastical polity."

What this means for churches

This case illustrates the breadth of the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine. This doctrine, rooted in the First Amendment religion clauses, bars the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers if religious doctrine or polity would be implicated. This is the case even when clergy raise "secular" arguments, such as a church's noncompliance with its governing documents. Speller v. Saint Stephen Lutheran Church, 2017 WL 1190933 (Mich. App. 2017).

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Posted:
  • August 27, 2018
  • Last Reviewed: March 15, 2021