Key Point 8-10.1. The civil courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment prevents them from applying employment laws to the relationship between a church and a minister.
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 federal district court for the District of Columbia ruled that a pastor’s age discrimination claim against a denominational agency was barred by the “ministerial exception,” but the court could resolve the pastor’s claims of breach of contract, wrongful eviction, and defamation, so long as doing so would not implicate religious doctrine.
A pastor and his wife organized a church (the “local church”) in 1995. The local church affiliated with a Protestant denomination (the “national church”) and one of its subdivisions (the “regional church”), but retained its organizational, administrative, and pastoral independence. Despite that independence, the local church entered into an agreement with the regional church with the following terms: (1) the regional church agreed to arrange financing to purchase property for the local church’s use; (2) the local church agreed to be responsible for repaying the loan; (3) the regional church held title to the property while the loan was being paid “to protect against the church’s default on the loan”; and (4) when the loan was repaid, the regional church would “relinquish the title to the property to the church free and clear of any encumbrances.” By 2005, the local church, using “the funds of the church membership without any contribution from the regional church,” had fully repaid the loan, but the regional church refused to transfer title to the local church.
In 2011, an officer of the regional church formally appointed the pastor as lead pastor of the local church. Although the pastor insisted that the regional church had no authority to determine who was the church’s pastor, he accepted the appointment and accepted a stipend of $1,500 per month. The regional church discontinued the stipend in 2012.
In 2015, an officer of the regional church informed the pastor that it was time for him to retire because the regional church had “younger people” capable of taking his place and that his last day as pastor would be May 31, 2015. The pastor ignored this ultimatum and continued to assert his authority to act as the church’s pastor. The regional church responded by changing the locks to the church without notifying the pastor, and by informing local law enforcement personnel that the pastor “had made illegal and unauthorized entry onto the properties.” The pastor was warned that he would be subject to arrest if he attempted to enter the property again.
The pastor sued the regional church, asserting the following claims:
- age discrimination based on the regional church’s attempt to remove the pastor so that a younger pastor could be chosen;
- breach of contract to pay a monthly stipend of $1,500 after 2012;
- breach of contract based on the regional church’s failure to convey title to the local church pursuant to the agreement to carry out such a transfer upon the church’s repayment of the loan;
- wrongful eviction based on the regional church’s changing the locks to the church in order to prevent the pastor from entering the building; and
- defamation based on the letter the regional church disseminated to law enforcement authorities stating that the pastor had illegally entered onto the property.
The regional church asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that it was an internal church matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction.
Ecclesiastical abstention and ministerial exception
The ecclesiastical abstention doctrine is based on a “long line of Supreme Court cases that affirm the fundamental right of churches to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine.” The related ministerial exception “precludes application of [employment discrimination laws] to claims concerning the employment relationship between a religious institution and its ministers.” As the United States Supreme Court noted in a unanimous ruling in 2012: “The exception … ensures that the authority to select and control who will minister to the faithful—a matter strictly ecclesiastical—is the church’s alone.” Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and Sch. v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012).
The court noted that “the Supreme Court has expressed no view on whether the ministerial exception bars claims other than employment discrimination claims,” and it noted that a prior federal appeals court ruling had concluded that the exception “did not bar a breach of contract claim when resolution of such a claim is subject to entirely neutral methods of proof.” Minker v. Baltimore Annual Conference of United Methodist Church, 894 F.2d 1354 (D.C. Cir. 1990).
The pastor claimed that the regional church discriminated against him on the basis of age because its officer forced him to retire from his position as pastor by telling him that he needed “to retire” because there were “younger people” to take his place. The court noted that the pastor had abandoned this claim on appeal, but even if he had not done so, the ministerial exception would have barred the claim:
His allegation is that the officer “forced him to retire because of his age,” thereby ending his tenure as pastor. The age discrimination claim before the court thus “is an employment discrimination [claim] brought on behalf of a minister, challenging his church’s decision to fire him.” The ministerial exception bars such a claim. That bar is in place because the court’s involvement in assessing the propriety of a pastor’s termination would improperly entangle it in “an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”
Breach of contract to pay a stipend
The pastor claimed that the regional church’s discontinuation of his monthly $1,500 stipend amounted to a breach of contract. The court noted that in the District of Columbia, the elements of a breach of contract claim are: “(1) a valid contract between the parties; (2) an obligation or duty arising out of the contract; (3) a breach of that duty; and (4) damages caused by breach.”
The regional church argued that the ministerial exception barred this claim, but the court disagreed. The court quoted from the Minker case (see above): “A church is always free to burden its activities voluntarily through contracts, and such contracts are fully enforceable in civil court.” In Minker, the court considered a breach of an oral employment contract claim asserted by a minister. The court recognized that “it could turn out that in attempting to prove his case, the minister will be forced to inquire into matters of ecclesiastical policy even as to his contract claim,” which would require a dismissal of this claim.
The same analysis is warranted here, the DC court concluded:
If it turns out that resolution of the pastor’s claim that the regional church breached a contract to pay him a stipend requires excessive entanglement with religious doctrine, the court can grant summary judgment in favor of the regional church. But because at this early stage it is not entirely clear that resolution of [the pastor’s breach of contract claim] will require anything other than “neutral methods of proof,” dismissal on ministerial exception grounds is not warranted.
Breach of contract to convey title to property
The pastor claimed that the regional church breached its agreement to return title to the church property to the local church when it paid off the underlying loan in full. The regional church claimed that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevented the court from resolving this breach of contract claim because resolution of that claim would require the court “to delve into the doctrinal beliefs of [the national church]. Specifically, the regional church explained that the property deed states that the property is to be held by the regional church in trust for the use and benefit of the national church,” and subject to The “Discipline” (the foundational document of the national church). And, of utmost importance according to the regional church, was the fact that The Discipline states that the regional church can only convey property “as may be deemed necessary or convenient for the purpose of [the regional church].” And, The Discipline describes those purposes as “religious, benevolent, charitable and educational in keeping with the purposes of national church as set forth in its Discipline.”
Therefore, the regional church reasoned, since any conveyance of real property by the regional church must be consistent with the religious “purpose” of the national church, the court was barred from resolving the breach of contract claim since doing so would directly entangle the court in the internal doctrine and practice of a religious denomination.
The court again disagreed:
Assuming the regional church is correct that terms in The Discipline are relevant to resolution of a claim that it breached a contract to convey title to the local church, it is still not apparent that resolution of the claim would require the court to assess religious doctrine or policy. The fulcrum of the regional church’s religious entanglement argument is the provision in The Discipline that states that the regional church can only convey property “as may be deemed necessary or convenient for the purpose of [the regional church].”
The regional church argues that this provision mandates that any contract to convey title must be consistent with the religious “purpose” of the national church and the court, in making that assessment as part of the breach of contract analysis, would be impermissibly assessing religious doctrine. Not so. The provision does not require that any conveyance of real property actually be consistent with the church’s religious “purpose.” Instead, it states that any conveyance must have been “deemed necessary or convenient” for that religious purpose by the appropriate individuals acting on the regional church’s behalf. An assessment of whether the regional church deemed conveyance of its property to the local church necessary or convenient for its religious purpose is a neutral determination that would not involve the court in determining what the church’s religious principles actually are. Thus, assuming the terms of The Discipline are relevant to this breach of contract claim, the regional church has not demonstrated that resolution of that claim will require the court to undertake an assessment of religious doctrine or policy. Again, to the extent that it becomes apparent that the court would be required to make such an assessment as this case progresses, the court at that time can grant summary judgment on the ground that resolution of the claim would create an excessive entanglement with religion. But, at this early stage, with that entanglement not yet apparent, dismissal on ecclesiastical abstention grounds would be premature.
The pastor alleged that the regional church wrongfully evicted him by changing the locks on the church so that he was unable to access the building. Once again, the regional church insisted that resolution of this claim would involve impermissible religious entanglement. The court concluded that there was no evidence that this would be the case, and so it declined to dismiss this claim.
The pastor claimed that the regional church defamed him when it disseminated a letter to law enforcement officers stating that he had made illegal and unauthorized entry onto church property. The regional church claimed that the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine prevented the court from resolving this claim since any attempt by the court to address this claim would impermissibly implicate this court in matters of religious doctrine and policy. Again, the court disagreed, noting that it “was not convinced that resolving the property-related claims will necessitate inappropriate judicial meddling in religious matters.”
What this means for churches
This case illustrates an important principle: While the “ecclesiastical abstention doctrine” prevents the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes involving “matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,” it does not necessarily preclude resolution of such disputes on the basis of strictly neutral principles requiring no recourse to faith or doctrine. Gregorio v. Hoover, 238 F.Supp.3d 37 (D.D.C. 2017).