An Indiana court ruled that the first amendment prohibited it from resolving a wrongful dismissal claim by a seminary professor.

Church Law and Tax2000-05-01



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.

An Indiana court ruled that the first amendment prohibited it from resolving a wrongful dismissal claim by a seminary professor. In the spring of 1994, Pope John Paul II issued an Apostolic Letter declaring the issue of the ordination of women as priests was resolved and no longer open to debate. Several months after the statement was issued, a female professor of theology at a Catholic seminary joined 1,500 others in signing an open letter opposing the Pope’s teachings on the subject. After reading the open letter, a seminary official determined that the professor had become “seriously deficient” in her duties by publicly dissenting from the Pope’s teachings, and that the Church’s canon law required that he remove her from the faculty. Following her dismissal, the professor sued the seminary for breach of contract, interference with contractual relations, and breach of an implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The seminary asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit on the ground that a resolution of the professor’s claims would require the court to decide religious issues regarding the Church’s motivation and doctrinal basis for removing her. The professor insisted that the court could avoid violating the first amendment by applying “neutral principles of contract law.” She argued that her contract and the Faculty Constitution provide the exclusive circumstances under which she may be dismissed, and that the issue may be resolved without reference to either church law or doctrine. The seminary pointed out that the employment contract incorporated the terms of the Faculty Handbook, which included the Statement on Governance. The Statement on Governance in turn “provides that the seminary operates through an hierarchical model in the administration of justice as specified by the Church’s canon law” and that the seminary is empowered to remove a professor who is determined to be seriously deficient.

The court noted that the first amendment prevents the civil courts from interfering in matters of church discipline, faith, practice and religious law. As a result, the courts are precluded from resolving disputes involving churches if “resolution of the disputes cannot be made without extensive inquiry … into religious law and polity.” As a result, the first amendment “proscribes intervention by secular courts into many employment decisions made by religious organizations based on religious doctrines or beliefs. Accordingly, personnel decisions are protected from civil court interference where review by civil courts would require the courts to interpret and apply religious doctrine or ecclesiastical law.”

The court concluded that in light of the Statement on Governance, a resolution of the professor’s claims would require it to interpret and apply religious doctrine and ecclesiastical law: “At a minimum, the trial court would have to determine whether [the professor’s] conduct constituted public dissent or caused her to be seriously deficient, and whether canon law required [the seminary] to remove the professor from her teaching position.”

Application. This case applies to a seminary professor the rule that has been consistently applied to pastors-the civil courts are barred by the first amendment from resolving claims of wrongful dismissal or discipline. McEnroy v. St. Meinrad School of Theology, 713 N.E.2d 334 (Ind. App. 1999).

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