• Does a civil court have the authority to resolve a lawsuit filed by a dismissed minister against his former employer? No, concluded a Georgia state appeals court. The minister had been selected by the Episcopal Diocese of Georgia to serve as minister for two mission churches. After serving for a year, he was terminated by the diocese from both positions against his wishes. He later sued the diocese seeking money damages for an alleged breach of an employment contract. The minister relied on a manual (the “Diocesan Directives”) furnished him at the time he accepted the two pastorates. The manual specified that “when a clergyman accepts the Diocesan’s call to fill a mission cure in the Diocese, such acceptance constitutes an implied agreement that his tenure will be for a minimum of three years. Resignation prior to three years, unless such termination is by mutual agreement by the Bishop and the clergyman, constitutes a breach of contract.” The minister asserted that this language created a binding three-year contract which the Diocese breached when it terminated him prior to the end of the three-year term. The appeals court ruled in favor of the Diocese on the ground that the civil courts have no legal authority to resolve ecclesiastical disputes: “The civil court cannot take jurisdiction of an ecclesiastical issue even if the parties present it for resolution, because the first amendment [guaranty of religious freedom] prohibits such action by the civil judicial system. The entanglement of civil authority into ecclesiastical affairs which is prohibited by our fundamental law and which was one of the promptings of the creation of this nation is evident in this lawsuit. A priest sues his church, bringing into a civil court dispute over his termination as [priest of two mission churches]. He seeks monetary damages representing lost wages, consequential damages, interest and costs, claiming breach of an alleged civilly enforceable contract governing his call.” In other words, the minister sought to place before a civil court “the question of whether the bishop, as head of the church in Georgia, was legally justified in removing him from [his positions].” The court, in concluding that its resolution of the dispute would impermissibly entangle it in ecclesiastical matters, observed: “For the court to decide whether a binding civil contract was intended; for the court to construe the meaning of that contract if there is one, or leave to a jury its construction if ambiguity raises questions of fact; for the court or jury to determine whether canons or manual directives control; and most clearly, for a jury to decide whether ‘a pastoral situation’ occurred which warranted removal of the missions’ spiritual leader; all of these incursions into religious controversy constitute a large leap beyond the constitutional boundary. Inextricably entangled is whether the priest’s performance of his duties as a priest met with the requirements of his church as measured by ecclesiastical concerns.” The court quoted with approval a 1976 United States Supreme Court decision concluding that “civil courts are bound to accept the decisions of the highest judicatories of a religious organization of hierarchical polity on matters of discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law.” The issue involved here, concluded the Georgia court, “fell within this territory.” Four of the court’s nine judges dissented from the court’s ruling, noting that the civil courts routinely monitor employment contracts and that to deny clergy the same benefit amounted to an “unfair, hostile, and discriminatory treatment by government toward religion.” The dissenters also were troubled by the broad implications of the court’s ruling. For example, may a “church defeat a [lawsuit] for back pay for services rendered by a priest merely by asserting that its doctrine prohibits it from acknowledging such debts?” The dissenters felt that the civil courts do have authority to resolve controversies involving “property rights only” not involving any “resolution of an ecclesiastical or theological dispute.” McDonnell v. Episcopal Diocese of Georgia, 381 S.E.2d 126 (Ga. 1989).
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