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Michigan Court Barred by Ecclesiastical Abstention in Employment Case

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.

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