The court stressed that a dismissal of a plaintiff’s lawsuit based on an alleged lack of jurisdiction is an extraordinary act that is inappropriate if there are disputed facts. The court concluded:
The court cannot properly adjudicate the church’s motion to dismiss at this time . . . since the parties present diametrically opposed renderings of the most important event at issue: The plaintiff avers that the church discharged her because she was pregnant, and the church contends that it discharged her because she violated religious tenets. If the church declares truthfully the reasons for the plaintiff’s discharge, then the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine applies to bar this action; otherwise, its assertions constitute pretext buttressing her pregnancy discrimination claim. . . . A court violates no constitutional rights by merely investigating the circumstances of [plaintiff’s] discharge . . . if only to ascertain whether the ascribed religious-based reason was in fact the reason for the discharge.
What This Means For Churches:
This case illustrates an important point. While the so-called ecclesiastical abstention doctrine generally bars the civil courts from reviewing a church’s termination of an employee based on a violation of church doctrine, the courts are not prevented from ensuring that this was the actual basis for the church’s decision, rather than a pretext. Kelley v. Baptist Church, 2018 WL 2020597 (N.D. Ala. 2018).
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