Clergy – Part 2


Church Law and Tax 1990-03-01 Recent Developments

Clergy – Removal

A federal appeals court ruled that civil courts lack authority to resolve disputes between dismissed clergy and their former church or denomination. A minister who had served for 40 years within the Christian and Missionary Alliance (CMA) was dismissed. He sued the CMA, claiming that his dismissal violated established procedures set forth in the CMA bylaws. He alleged that his dismissal violated various “contract and property rights,” injured his reputation, and ruined his emotional health. He demanded $1 million in damages (his wife sought an additional $200,000). A federal district court granted the CMA’s motion to dismiss, and the ex-minister appealed. A federal appeals court upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit. The court rejected the ex-minister’s claims that (1) his “due process rights” had been violated by the CMA’s alleged failure to abide by its own bylaws, and (2) his dismissal violated various state and federal labor laws. The court concluded that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving lawsuits brought by dismissed ministers against former churches or denominations “however a lawsuit may be labelled.” In other words, the fact that a dismissed minister alleges breach of contract, defamation, emotional distress, or similar “secular” theories of liability will not enable the civil courts to resolve what in essence is a dispute between a minister and his or her church or denomination. The court observed: “However a suit may be labelled, once a court is called upon to probe into a religious body’s selection and retention of clergymen, the first amendment [guaranty of religious freedom] is implicated …. 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.” The court concluded: “At bottom, [the ex-minister’s] complaint directly involves, and would require judicial intrusion into, rules, policies, and decisions which are unmistakably of ecclesiastical cognizance. They are, therefore, not the federal courts’ concern …. The [church’s] own internal guidelines and procedures must be allowed to dictate what its obligations to its members are without being subject to court intervention. It is well-settled that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry. Religious bodies must be free to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters which pertain to church government, faith, and doctrine.” Quoting a decision of the United States Supreme Court, the court observed that it was obligated to accept a church’s decisions “on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” The court’s decision is reinforced by the fact that it was upholding the lower court’s order dismissing the lawsuit. Under federal law, a motion to dismiss may be granted only if the allegations in the plaintiff’s complaint, accepted as true, state “no set of facts which might entitle the plaintiff to relief.” The court’s dismissal of this lawsuit under this minimal standard of review adds force to its conclusions. Natal v. Christian and Missionary Alliance, 878 F.2d 1575 (1st Cir. 1989).

See also Constitutions, bylaws, and charters, Frankel v. Kissena Jewish Center, 544 N.Y.S.2d 955 (1989); Personal injuries—on church property or during church activities, Erickson v. Christenson, 781 P.2d 383 (Or. App. 1989).

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