Callahan v. First Congregational Church, 808 N.E.2d 301 (Mass. Sup. 2004)
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.
Key point 4-02.03. A number of defenses are available to one accused of defamation. These include truth, statements made in the course of judicial proceedings, consent, and self-defense. In addition, statements made to church members about a matter of common interest to members are protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless they are made with malice. In this context, malice means that the person making the statements knew that they were false or made them with a reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity. This privilege will not apply if the statements are made to nonmembers.
Key point 8-23. A reference letter is a letter that evaluates the qualifications and suitability of a person for a particular position. Churches, like other employers, often use reference letters to screen new employees and volunteers. Churches often are asked to provide reference letters on current or former workers. The law generally provides employers with important protections when responding to a reference letter request. However, liability may still arise in some cases, such as if the employer acts with malice in drafting a reference letter.
A Massachusetts court ruled that the civil courts are barred by the first amendment from resolving clergy employment disputes regardless of whether the church is congregational or hierarchical in polity.
A pastor (Pastor Ted) contracted with a local church to serve as its "interim pastor" until the church hired a permanent pastor. Pastor Ted previously had served as an interim pastor at a number of churches throughout New England during much of his thirty-five year career. His first year in his new interim post passed successfully. In the second year, however, a series of events occurred that led to his resignation. He claimed that his problems started after he expressed concerns about the church's alleged "financial recordkeeping, lack of a recent audit, and apparent discrepancies and conflicts of interest." The church council, he claimed, responded to his concerns with hostility. This hostility escalated when he expressed concerns about certain actions taken by the search committee that was reviewing candidates for the permanent pastor's position.
Specifically, he complained to the committee that it had failed to interview a white candidate who was married to an African-American woman, and that it had interviewed but failed to hire a woman that the committee allegedly "perceived to be a lesbian." Throughout his interim ministry Pastor Ted had advocated adopting an "open and affirming" policy toward gay and lesbian candidates for the ministry, and against "homophobia." Due to this perceived hostility, and a health problem, Pastor Ted resigned his position.
Church officers submitted a complaint against Pastor Ted to a regional denominational agency ("regional church") from which he derived the authority to practice ministry. The complaint accused him of "horrible" and "irrational" behavior at council meetings; of breaching an unspecified confidence; and of "flying into a rage"; of misconduct with respect to the church's pledge cards; of mailing a stuffed rat to the church treasurer; and of calling the congregation "evil." A regional church officer allegedly contacted prospective employers that "charges" had been filed against Pastor Ted.
A committee of the regional church investigated the charges, and concluded that Pastor Ted had violated his duty "to work cooperatively with those whom he had been called to serve" by improperly disparaging the leaders and other members of the church, and by failing to keep confidential an administrative discussion with a lay leader after having agreed to do so. The committee also found that he had interfered with the pastoral search process of the church. The committee suspended Pastor Ted's standing as a minister indefinitely.
Pastor Ted sued the church and church council for employment discrimination based on "perceived sexual orientation" and disability, breach of contract, infliction of emotional distress, violation of the right to privacy, interference with contract, and defamation. His lawsuit alleged that a church officer (Robert) informed a church member that he would "do everything he could to ensure that Pastor Ted never practiced ministry again." During that same conversation, the officer accused Pastor Ted of having an "inappropriate relationship" with a seminarian, which the member interpreted to mean a homosexual relationship with a person who was under his supervision. A trial court rejected the church defendants' motion to dismiss on the ground that the church was "congregational" rather than "hierarchical" in polity, and that only clergy employment disputes involving hierarchical churches are barred by the first amendment.
An appeals court conceded that some courts have recognized a distinction between clergy employment disputes involving congregational churches and those involving hierarchical churches, but it concluded that the first amendment barred the civil courts from resolving all clergy employment disputes regardless of church polity. It concluded, "We do not read United States Supreme Court cases as supporting judicial intrusion into matters of religious doctrine involving congregational churches." It quoted from a landmark Supreme Court case from over a century ago that "eloquently explains why this court should not interfere in the disciplinary process" administered by the regional church in this case:
The right to organize voluntary religious associations to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine, and to create tribunals for the decision of controverted questions of faith within the association, and for the ecclesiastical government of all the individual members, congregations, and officers within the general association, is unquestioned. All who unite themselves to such a body do so with an implied consent to this government, and are bound to submit to it. But it would be a vain consent and would lead to the total subversion of such religious bodies, if any one aggrieved by one of their decisions could appeal to the secular courts and have them reversed. It is of the essence of these religious unions, and of their right to establish tribunals for the decision of questions arising among themselves, that those decisions should be binding in all cases of ecclesiastical cognizance, subject only to such appeals as the organism itself provides for.
The court stressed that "other courts have declined to distinguish between congregational and hierarchical churches when determining whether they may exercise subject matter jurisdiction over disputes arising from the termination or discipline of a minister or church member" (referring to three cases discussed fully in prior editions of this newsletter). It concluded, "Today we hold that congregational as well as hierarchical churches are entitled to autonomy over church disputes touching on matters of doctrine, canon law, polity, discipline, and ministerial relationships. To conclude otherwise would violate fundamental precepts of the first amendment … guaranteeing free exercise of religion."
However, the court did allow Pastor Ted to pursue his defamation claim against the church officer who insinuated that he was engaged in a homosexual relationship with a seminarian, and that he engaged in violent and bizarre behavior. The court noted that this statement was made a month before the church council submitted its list of charges to the regional church, and so it "fell outside the church disciplinary process. The absolute first amendment protection for statements made by a church member in an internal church disciplinary proceeding would not apply to statements made or repeated outside that context."
. This case illustrates the following important points.
1. In 1976 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the first amendment guaranty of religious freedom prevents the civil courts from resolving employment disputes between churches and ministers. Serbian Eastern Orthodox Diocese v. Milivojevich, 426 U.S. 696 (1976). Since this ruling involved an "hierarchical" church, some other federal and state courts have concluded that the case must be limited to hierarchical churches and therefore cannot be applied to congregational churches. The Massachusetts court's decision summarized in this recent development persuasively holds that the general principle announced by the Supreme Court is broad enough to apply to all churches, regardless of polity.
2. The court concluded that the first amendment does more than bar "wrongful termination" claims brought by ministers against their employing church. It also bars the courts from resolving any collateral claims that arise because of the employment relationship, including breach of contract, defamation, emotional distress, and "interference with contract."
3. According to the principle of "interference with contract," a former employer may be liable if it intentionally interferes with an existing employment relationship. To illustrate, assume that a church dismisses an employee (Jill) because of embezzlement, and Jill is later hired by another church. The pastor of the former employer discovers that Jill is now working for another employer, and he calls the employer and shares details about Jill's embezzlement. Based on this unsolicited communication Jill is dismissed by her new employer. She later sues her former church and pastor for "interference with contract." To prove interference with contract, Jill had to demonstrate the existence of a contract (an employment relationship), and some intentional act by her former church or pastor that interfered with that contract. This basis of liability requires the existence of a contract. If Jill's new employer had asked her former employer for a letter of reference prior to the date she was hired, there would have been no interference with contract.
In the Massachusetts case, Pastor Ted claimed that the regional church committed interference with contract by publishing the charges against him in materials sent to affiliated churches. The court concluded that "publication of the ecclesiastical complaint against Pastor Ted [to affiliated churches] was inextricably part of the … disciplinary process," and as such was protected by the first amendment.
4. The court recognized "absolute first amendment protection" for statements made by a church member in the course of an internal church disciplinary proceeding. Courts in many states have recognized this same principle. However, this principle assumes an ongoing disciplinary proceeding. In this case, statements made by a church member regarding Pastor Ted a month before any disciplinary proceeding was initiated were not protected.