A District of Columbia appeals court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a dismissed pastor’s lawsuit.

Church Law and Tax2003-11-01

Clergy Removal

Key point 2-04.1. Most courts have concluded that they are barred by the first amendment guarantees of religious freedom and nonestablishment of religion from resolving challenges by dismissed clergy to the legal validity of their dismissals.

* A District of Columbia appeals court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevented it from resolving a dismissed pastor’s lawsuit against board members of his former church. A church hired a new senior pastor, and a contract of employment was signed. A termination clause in the contract required that the church request the pastor’s resignation prior to taking a vote to terminate his employment, and that a vote to terminate would only be binding if a two-thirds majority voted to remove. Within a few years, the congregation became dissatisfied with the pastor’s services. Concerned members compiled an 80-page “manual” recounting the many grievances against the pastor that was circulated among the church membership. The church eventually called a business meeting at which the members voted to terminate the pastor by a vote of 130 to 2. The pastor felt that the vote was invalid and declined to honor it. He continued to appear at the church on Sundays to preach. This prompted the church board members to lock the doors of the church. The pastor later sued the board members individually for defamation as a result of the circulation of the manual. The board members asked the court to dismiss the case on the ground that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom bars the civil courts from resolving internal church disputes. The pastor insisted that the first amendment only protected churches, and not individual board members. A trial court agreed and refused to dismiss the case. The board members appealed.

An appeals court concluded that the first amendment barred it from resolving the pastor’s lawsuit, even though it named individual board members as defendants. The court noted that “although the lawsuit names each of the trustees individually, it discusses actions taken by the trustees as trustees of the church.” Further, the lawsuit referred to the board members as “trustees of the church.” From all this “it seems plain that the individuals named in the lawsuit were named precisely because they were trustees of the church and were being sued as trustees, not as individuals.”

The court noted that the civil courts “have consistently held that the first amendment prohibits judicial encroachment into church decisions where those decisions turn on church polity or on religious doctrine or practice …. This prohibition includes church decisions concerning the employment of ministers because selection and termination of clergy is a core matter of ecclesiastical self-governance not subject to interference by a state.” The court concluded,

We hold that constitutional protections afforded by the first amendment extend to defamation claims, when: (1) such a claim flows entirely from an employment dispute between a church and its pastor so that consideration of the claim in isolation from the church’s decision as to the pastor is not practical, (2) the alleged publication is confined within the church, and (3) there are no unusual or egregious circumstances …. Even if some of the language [in the manual] may be overwrought in the view of some, none of it is noticeably unusual or egregious. Accusations of misconduct, discussions of that misconduct within the church, and the emotional distress and exaggerated language that accompany such activities seem to us to be unavoidable parts of the difficult process by which dissatisfied churches end employment relationships with their pastors.

Application. This case illustrates the view of most courts that the constitutional ban on civil court review of pastoral terminations extends to collateral issues including defamation claims that arise out of an employment dispute. Heard v. Johnson, 2002 WL 31600062 (D.C. App. 2002).

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