• The District of Columbia court of appeals ruled that the United Methodist Church could not be sued by a dismissed minister who sought to challenge his dismissal in a civil court. A Methodist (UMC) minister served as pastor of a number of churches from 1970 through 1985, and as a chaplain in the United States Air Force. In 1984, he became severely depressed and emotionally disturbed. He was hospitalized for several months in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital. Late in 1984, denominational officials voted to place the minister on a leave of absence pursuant to the Methodist Book of Discipline. In addition, pursuant to the requirements of the Book of Discipline that a minister on a leave of absence may not exercise his ministry beyond the confines of his local church and that his ecclesiastical endorsement must be withdrawn, denominational officials sent a letter to the Air Force withdrawing the minister’s ecclesiastical endorsement as a chaplain. A year later, the minister was terminated by his annual conference and was sent a letter to that effect. He retained an attorney who informed denominational officials that he had “reviewed in detail the applicable provisions of the Book of Discipline,” but who failed to note that a minister has only 10 days after receiving notice of termination to request a church trial. The attorney filed an appeal on behalf of the minister three weeks after the minister received notice of his termination (several days after the 10-day appeals period had expired). A year later, the minister sued his annual conference of the United Methodist Church for breach of contract. He also demanded reinstatement of his ecclesiastical endorsement, a letter of apology, and actual and punitive damages. His lawsuit alleged that he had been wrongfully discharged and divested of his ecclesiastical endorsement, and denied hospital and retirement benefits. The UMC filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, which was rejected by a trial court. This decision was immediately appealed to a court of appeals, which ruled in favor of the UMC. The court of appeals began its opinion with a very important observation—the constitutional guaranty of religious freedom “grants churches an immunity from civil discovery and trial under certain circumstances in order to avoid subjecting religious institutions to defending their religious beliefs and practices in a court of law.” Accordingly, a trial court’s decision denying a church’s claim of immunity from civil liability may be appealed immediately to prevent the church from having to endure a trial that may later be deemed improper. The importance of this conclusion cannot be overstated. Next, the court observed that the “United States Supreme Court has long held that, generally, civil courts are not a constitutionally permissible forum for review of ecclesiastical disputes” involving “matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom or law.” While there are “limited exceptions” to this general rule, no exception applies to disputes involving clergy dismissals. On the contrary, “the right to choose a minister without judicial intervention underlies the well-being of religious community, for perpetuation of a church’s existence may depend upon those whom it selects to preach its values, teach its message, and interpret its doctrines both to its own membership and the world at large. Any attempt by the civil courts to limit the church’s choice of its religious representatives would constitute an impermissible burden on the church’s first amendment rights.” Accordingly, the “courts have concluded that employment disputes concerning the status of pastors are inherently ecclesiastical and cannot constitutionally be subject to review.” The court also rejected the dismissed minister’s claim that his dismissal violated church procedures, since “a secular evaluation of procedures that ecclesiastical or canon law requires the church to follow is precisely the type of inquiry the first amendment prohibits.” The court emphasized that churches are “not above the law,” and that in some cases they may be legally liable for breaching an employment contract if the contract is in writing and the breach of contract claim can be clearly separated from ecclesiastical considerations. Obviously, such cases will be rare. This case demonstrates the difficulty that dismissed clergy face in suing their former churches or denominations for breach of contract and related claims. In recent years, the courts have consistently rejected such claims, and this likely will be the view of the civil courts for the foreseeable future. United Methodist Church v. White, 571 A.2d 790 (D.C. App. 1990).
© Copyright 1990, 1998 by Church Law & Tax Report. All rights reserved. This publication is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is provided with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. Church Law & Tax Report, PO Box 1098, Matthews, NC 28106. Reference Code: m31 m40 c0690