Key point The First Amendment allows civil courts to resolve internal church disputes so long as they can do so without interpreting doctrine or polity.
A Colorado court ruled that it was barred by the First Amendment from resolving a pastor’s lawsuit seeking additional compensation from his church on the basis of breach of contract. An ordained pastor (the “plaintiff”) served as the senior pastor of a church for nearly 20 years. He sued his church for breach of contract as a result of the church’s alleged failure to compensate him fully for his services as pastor since 1991. He relied on representations and assurances by the church that it would compensate him whenever it was financially able to do so. According to the lawsuit, the church had obtained substantial proceeds from the sale of church property, and as a result was obligated to perform on its assurance of compensation.
The church denied any liability on several grounds, including the fact that the pastor had not adequately performed his duties as pastor. It also argued that the pastor’s breach of contract claim “arose directly out of the ministerial relationship … and therefore, under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the court was precluded from exercising jurisdiction.”
The trial court dismissed the case, concluding that it could not exercise jurisdiction because resolution of the claims would involve excessive government entanglement with religion. The plaintiff appealed.
A state appeals court noted that churches have autonomy in making decisions regarding their own internal affairs and that the “church autonomy doctrine prohibits civil court review of internal church disputes involving matters of faith, doctrine, church governance, and polity.” Bryce v. Episcopal Church, 289 F.3d 648 (10th Cir.2002).
A state appeals court began its opinion by noting that “the threshold inquiry here is whether the underlying dispute is a secular one, capable of review by a civil court, or an ecclesiastical one about discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law. While civil courts have jurisdiction to render decisions in religious controversies involving rights outside the doctrinal realm, such disputes must be resolved by application of secular or neutral principles of law, thereby avoiding any impermissible inquiry into ecclesiastical questions.”
The court noted that one of the issues to be resolved was whether the pastor properly performed his duties as a pastor. Analysis of that issue “would require inquiry into the church’s bylaws and the nature of the pastor’s responsibilities as defined in his job description.” The court continued:
The bylaws provide, among other requirements, “The Pastor is responsible for leading the church to function as a New Testament church. The Pastor will lead the congregation, the organization, and the church staff to perform their tasks in accordance with 1 Peter 5.” Similarly, the job description states, among other duties, that the pastor shall “carry out other responsibilities put upon the pastor by scripture, as the under shepherd” and “fulfill personal responsibility to witness and encourage people to become part of the church fellowship.”
The determination whether [the plaintiff] has performed such duties adequately would necessarily entangle the court or a jury in matters that are purely ecclesiastical. Accordingly, the trial court properly ruled that the First Amendment precluded it from exercising jurisdiction.
The court based its conclusion, in part, on a previous federal appeals court case holding that matters such as a minister’s salary, place of assignment, and duties are matters of church administration and governance and are thus beyond the purview of civil authorities. McClure v. Salvation Army, 460 F.2d 553 (5th Cir.1972).
Application. This case indicates that the reluctance of the civil courts to resolve internal church disputes extends to disputes over clergy compensation, so long as a resolution of such claims would require a civil court to delve into matters of church doctrine and internal governance. Since most clergy compensation disputes involve matters of professional competence and internal church governance, they generally are beyond the authority of the civil courts to resolve. Jones v. Crestview Southern Baptist Church, 192 P.3d 571 (Colo. App. 2008).
This Recent Development first appeared in Church Law & Tax Report, March/April 2009.