The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that it was prevented from resolving a claim that a church violated the legal rights of its pastor.

Church Law and Tax2002-09-01


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.


* The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled that it was prevented by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from resolving a claim that a church violated the legal rights of its pastor when it voted to dismiss him. Several church members met with a denominational officer and shared their desire to remove their senior pastor as a result of a threat by a female member to sue the pastor for sexual harassment. The members asked the officer to preside over a membership meeting that would be called in order to determine the status of the pastor. The officer agreed to do so, and the meeting was later convened and resulted in the vote to remove the pastor. The pastor later sued the officer, and his denomination, claiming that he had been removed as a result of their intentional and negligent acts. A trial court dismissed the case on the ground that it was barred by the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom from becoming involved. The case was appealed to the state supreme court, which affirmed the trial court’s decision. The court relied on a 1976 ruling of the United States Supreme Court in a case involving the review by the Illinois courts of a claim by a dismissed bishop that his removal was improper because it was not done in compliance with church procedures. The Supreme Court held that the Illinois courts’ inquiry into whether the church’s decisions on matters of “discipline, faith, internal organization, or ecclesiastical rule, custom, or law” was prohibited because, “For civil courts to analyze whether the ecclesiastical actions of a church judicatory are [proper] must inherently entail inquiry into the procedures that cannon or ecclesiastical law supposedly required the church judicatory to follow, or else in to the substantive criteria by which they are supposedly to decide the ecclesiastical question. But this is exactly the inquiry that the first amendment prohibits; recognition of such an exception would undermine the general rule that religious controversies are not the proper subject of civil court inquiry, and that a civil court must accept the ecclesiastical decisions of church tribunals as it finds them.” Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976).

The dismissed pastor insisted that the Serbian case only applied to “hierarchical” churches and not to churches like his own which have an “autonomous congregational form of government” and that are independent and not subject to oversight by a church hierarchy. The court disagreed, “Decisions made by autonomous congregational churches are no less fair or deserving of judicial deference than decisions made by churches structured in a hierarchical fashion. The lack of a congregation’s own religious court of appeals is not justification for the intervention and review by a civil tribunal. Thus, we hold that congregational churches … are no more subject to judicial oversight than are ones with a hierarchical form of government.”

The pastor also claimed that the courts should intervene in his case because he was asserting a “property right” (his claim to unpaid wages and his expectancy of employment). The court conceded that in some cases the courts have intervened in church disputes in order to protect a property right. However, it concluded that this was not a case where such an exception would arise: “We have found no case involving disputes over church property in which all the parties were not church members or church officials, all of whom either claimed some right to the property at issue or the power to control it. Here, the record will not support the claim that [the denomination and its officer] had any interest in or control over [the pastor’s] unpaid past wages or his expectancy of continued employment.”

The court also rejected the pastor’s claim that his denomination committed “malicious interference with contract” and negligence. With regard to the negligence claim, the pastor pointed out that the denominational officer had often stated that he viewed himself as a “pastor to pastors.” As such, he had a duty to defend the pastor at the congregational meeting and ensure that the church did not vote to remove him. The court concluded that there was no evidence that the officer had any duty to resist the pastor’s removal, and without such a duty he was not negligent.

Application. This case demonstrates once again the difficulty that dismissed ministers have in challenging their dismissal in a civil court. Daniels v. Union Baptist Association, 2001 WL 744120 (Okla. 2001).

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