• Key point. It is the prevailing view that the civil courts are prohibited by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving lawsuits addressing the question of “who will preach from the pulpit” of a church.
An Ohio court refused to resolve an internal church dispute concerning alleged financial improprieties by the pastor. Several church members asked the church board to investigate the allegedly wrongful conduct of their pastor, and to terminate his employment. Specifically, they alleged that the pastor had failed to pay a promissory note to the church when the note became due; that he improperly charged the church for expenses for his personal business; that he improperly concealed an order of garnishment against him that allegedly resulted in a judgment against the church; that he improperly removed funds from the church’s investment account; and that he misappropriated funds from another organization while holding himself out as an employee of the church, exposing the church to liability. The members claimed that the board took no action against the pastor, and that each board member thereby breached his fiduciary duty to the congregation. The members asked a trial court to order an accounting of the church’s finances and a new election to determine whether the pastor should remain in office. The church asked an appeals court to dismiss the members’ lawsuit on the ground that it was an internal church matter over which the civil courts have no jurisdiction. A state appeals court agreed with the church. It began its opinion by observing that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom “prohibits state courts from making any inquiry into religious doctrine, practice or policy,” and that “ecclesiastical matters, including the decision as to who should preach from the pulpit, are outside of the state courts’ jurisdiction.” The court noted that it could resolve controversies that are “purely secular and require no inquiry into ecclesiastical matters.” However, this was not such a case:
The trial court further ordered that an audit be conducted of the church finances, apparently to determine whether or to what extent the pastor engaged in financial wrongdoing. Such an inquiry goes to the question of whether the pastor engaged in wrongdoing, rendering him unqualified as a pastor, and whether he should be removed for misconduct. Delving into the need or reason for disciplinary action against a pastor and the issue of whether the church membership should remove him as pastor necessarily requires the court to review ecclesiastical matters. Procedures for recalling the pastor of the church and for settling disputes with the pastor are encompassed in the church’s constitution; the court would be directly interfering with the internal government of the church by forcing the congregation to take action that it has apparently already determined not to take. It is precisely this type of interference with church ecclesiastical matters that is prohibited by the U.S. Constitution.
The court also pointed out that the church’s own constitution makes provision for the removal of a pastor, but that the dissident members ignored this provision and instead took their case to a civil court. The court concluded that “[t]he failure to follow internal procedures is fatal to the individual members’ claims and to the jurisdiction of the trial court.”
The court also refused to allow the members to sue the board members personally for breaching their fiduciary duties by failing to oust their pastor. It observed:
[I]nquiry into the relationship between the trustees and the congregation in matters concerning the pastorship would require the courts to consider each party’s view of “who should preach from the pulpit.” Review of such matters would further require the court to determine the issue of whether the trustees’ performance of their duties met the standards of the congregation and would therefore involve an inquiry into ecclesiastical concerns. Therefore … civil courts lack subject matter jurisdiction to entertain such matters …. [We] hold that the lower court has no jurisdiction over the claims brought by the individual members of the congregation seeking to oust the pastor or hold the board liable for breach of fiduciary duty to the congregation.
Application. This case illustrates the fundamental rule that the civil courts will not interfere with internal church disputes regarding the tenure or termination of a minister. As the court noted, “ecclesiastical matters, including the decision as to who should `preach from the pulpit,’ are outside of the state courts’ jurisdiction.” Further, it demonstrates that board members may not be personally liable, on the basis of a breach of fiduciary duties, for failing to investigate or oust a pastor who allegedly has committed financial improprieties. State v. Meagher, 1997 WL 180266 (Ohio App. 1997). [ Termination, Personal Liability of Church Officers, Directors, and Trustees, Judicial Resolution of Church Disputes]
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