Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and non-establishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.
* A New Mexico court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a rabbi’s claim that a synagogue unlawfully dismissed him on the basis of his age and Parkinson’s disease. A Jewish synagogue hired a rabbi (David) for a term of thirty years. During the term of his employment David developed Parkinson’s disease and his symptoms became progressively more apparent. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and some of the synagogue’s board members came to believe that her condition distracted David from his rabbinical duties. David claimed that the synagogue had engaged in an “ouster campaign” against him that involved both a willful failure to pay him the compensation called for by his employment contract, and an attempt to get him to release the synagogue from the thirty-year contract through a campaign of “false promises, harassment, ridicule, and intimidation, including publishing one-sided and negative information about him to congregation members and other members of the public in an effort to ensure that in the event he did not resign, the synagogue would have the congregation members’ votes to terminate his employment.” This negative information included statements accusing David of a poor work ethic, having no concern for congregation members, and performing poorly as a rabbi by failing to return telephone calls, failing to work adequate hours, and failing to make hospital visits.
David asserted that the synagogue’s motivation for conducting this campaign was due to his Parkinson’s disease, his age, his wife’s medical condition and his complaints about the synagogue’s failure to compensate him in accordance with his contract. He sued the synagogue and several board members on the basis of several grounds, including unlawful age and disability discrimination and a breach of various fiduciary duties. The trial court dismissed David’s lawsuit on the basis of the First Amendment guaranty of religious freedom. David appealed.
A state appeals court affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. It relied on the “church autonomy doctrine,” which “prevents civil legal entanglement between government and religious establishments by prohibiting courts from trying to resolve disputes related to ecclesiastical operations.” The basis for this doctrine is a decision by the United States Supreme Court. In an 1871 case, the Court observed: “The rule of action which should govern the civil courts Â… is, that, whenever the questions of discipline, or of faith, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law have been decided by the highest of these church judicatories to which the matter has been carried, the legal tribunals must accept such decisions as final, and as binding on them, in their application to the case before them.” Watson v. Jones, 80 U.S.(13 Wall.) 679 (1871).
The New Mexico court concluded that the dispute in the present case was “precisely the type of religious debate that the church autonomy doctrine is intended to protect from judicial review.” The court was sympathetic to David’s claim that his struggles with Parkinson’s disease played a role in his termination, but was “not persuaded that this circumstance justifies judicial intervention into how [a synagogue] treats and selects its ecclesiastical leaders.”
The court quoted with approval from a federal appeals court decision: “The relationship between an organized church and its ministers is its lifeblood. The minister is the chief instrument by which the church seeks to fulfill its purpose. Matters touching this relationship must necessarily be recognized as of prime ecclesiastical concern. Just as the initial function of selecting a minister is a matter of church administration and government, so are the functions which accompany such a selection.” McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.1972).
Application. This case illustrates once again the reluctance of the civil courts to interfere with employment decisions between religious organizations and clergy. The court in this case was not persuaded that a rabbi’s claims of disability and age discrimination were sufficient to justify its intervention. Celnik v. Congregation B’Nai Israel, 131 P.3d 102 (N.M. 2006).